Is this place really worth losing an arm over?

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Asia » East Timor
August 21st 2013
Published: August 27th 2013
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A group of men dressed in army uniforms exit from three white 4WD’s and briskly walk towards me. One speaks up to reassure, “You okay mate? Don’t worry, I’m a registered nurse. The others will get your bike, we’ll move our cars to the side to let everyone else pass and I’ll patch you up under the tree over there.” After four days in East Timor’s capital, Dili the true adventure appeared lost until I decided to ride to the districts.

East Timor (Timor-Leste) is one of the newest countries in the world with independence granted in 2002 (although they briefly were independent in late 1975 between being a Portuguese colony and Indonesia’s occupation.)

5 years earlier I had dreamt of coming here but due to expensive flights I headed to Singapore instead to begin my Asian travels. Now as the UN and overseas involvement diminishes tourists have cheaper options to get there. Flights come from three destinations - Darwin, Bali and Singapore.

From Sydney it took 11 hours overnight to get to Dili via a five hour stopover in Darwin. Jetlag had hit me instantly as the plane glided over this rugged terrain.

As the plane prepared to land I noticed the almost instant rise from the sea to mountainside. Timor-Leste is full of minimal flat land meaning the capital stretches from west to east but at times only 2km south from the shore before halting.

I entered my yellow crumbling taxi and felt restricted instantly. I looked ahead and saw black covering half the windscreen. It didn’t make sense as we past some roosters near the airport exit gate and turned left to crawl our way toward central Dili.

Av. Dos Martires de Patria is the main road from the airport to the centre of town. Arriving at 7am the taxi travelled east with the suns rays aiming straight at the drivers vision. With the black windscreen making sense I couldn’t see much due to my height and hoped that my shorter driver could see clearly between the steering wheel and black sticker.

The ride in or should I say every ride in the capital is a long one. Everything appears to go at an incredibly slow pace. Dili is poor and the vehicles (not the worst I have seen) are driven with preservation on the driver’s minds. Motorbikes are of a similar ilk and this laid back city by days end trumped many other cities that have had decades, centuries even to develop a clean organised city.

At this stage Dili is not that crowded and with the mountains only a 20 or so minute walk from the shore. Overpopulation could become a problem in the future. At the moment pollution is not noticeably bad compared to say Senegal or many West African nations. The Human Development Index has Timor Leste in front of some of its SE Asian neighbours (2013 ranked 134th.) Only a few times sewerage smells overcame all else. It’s cleanliness made my few days here pleasant enough, indicating locals respect for their city.

I started my days walk of Dili at Lita Store, one of the few supermarkets in the country. It was weird coming to a place like here for a two week holiday after so many years of backpacking previously. I packed all these extras because I knew I didn’t have a year to carry them. Like replenishing dry skin cream yet I forgot to pack soap. In my jetlagged state I managed to wash my teeth with the dry skin replenishment cream because I figured the only tube I’d bring would be toothpaste.

Across the road from the supermarket was a group of fruit and vegetable stands that had their produce lined up on the ground in groups of 3 sometimes 5 depending on the food. It was geometric precision and I had to take a photo. I felt guilty taking photos like this so I bought some mangos that I’d carry around for the rest of the day and take 3 days to ripen.

Throughout the day I saw many stands selling in bunches. I discovered later in the trip that it was because Timor-Leste hadn’t had coins for 3 years after introducing the US dollar to replace the Indonesian Rupiah. To compensate the lack of smaller currency they grouped things to make it an even dollar.

Finding out little bits of information and the development process of a new country fascinates me and this nation filled the void that had been missing for the past 15 months living and working at home.

Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony until the Carnation Revolution dethroned the Portuguese dictatorship in 1975. By 1976 with the blessings of powerhouses USA and others they allowed Indonesia to announce and invade East Timor as the 27th colony of Indonesia. In the early stages of this “take-over” the population dropped 23%!a(MISSING)nd around 300 000 were held in concentration camps.

Australia didn’t do much to help the situation for the next 25 years and have recently been criticised for pressuring East Timor to sign an oil and natural gas deal for the Timor Gap in the Timor Sea. Australia at the time allowed the Indonesians to invade the outpost of Portugals fallen empire with the Portuguese looking on from the nearby Atauro Island. Australia eventually righted a horrible wrong and helped with the transition back to independence.

The city shows the occasional scars of the oppression, bullet holes show up on abandoned buildings even on some local schools. Monuments have locals consoling one another or a guy breaking the shackles of occupation. Visiting here whilst on a holiday it feels like the past has been left there more so than say when I visited Rwanda.

Whereas in Rwanda there were constant reminders of the atrocities - Walking the streets of Dili, prior research allowed me to discover some historic places otherwise it was just left to a few monuments.

My first world events that I can recall in my life is George Bush Snr addressing the world that the Iraq War had begun. The other was of this place just north of Australia where Indonesians set about killing people in a cemetery.

To the south of the city near the hills is Santa Cruz cemetery. Chills went through me as I stood there with my black plastic bag full of 5 freshly picked mangos looking at this familiar white concrete fence. My memory was a bit sketchy so I had to deduce from the footage I saw more than a decade earlier and what was before me.

The incident happened during the funeral of Sebastieo Gomez, which lead to many people protesting and chanting independent slogans. As this went on outside the funeral gates Indonesian troops began to shoot causing many to seek protection inside the cemetery.

With this footage of people fearing for their lives, the sounds of gun fire and images of people being beaten up. The world’s attention finally acknowledged Indonesian military’s over zealous stance. The Santa Cruz massacre saw at least 250 people killed in one of the nations bloodiest days. (
- just skip to the 5 minute mark if you don’t have time)

I tried to find the spot where the footage was taken. The camera appeared to be shot low to the ground and as I walked in I was totally confused by the cluster of gravestones taking up every piece of land possible. I walked all the way to the back of the cemetery, which was difficult as I tiptoed in the maze. If there was a walkway it has been taken over by gravesites now. I took a photo from the back thinking the angle was from there but looking at the footage from the link above it appears the cameraman was gutsy and shot almost at the entrance at the small peaceful building.

This recent history has tarnished Timor-Leste’s reputation with the nation seen as a place of violence or still under a peacekeeping effort. Australia sent around 5500 troops as well as other nations. Contributing under the peacekeeping name called INTERFET in 1999 before passing the reins over to the UN the next year. Since then occasional problems and assassination attempts on the presidents and key political figures lead to unrest and more deployment of troops from Australia.

This last paragraph is what everyone thought I was doing because that it is all there is to do right? It was either I’m an NGO or I’m going to be taking a gun with me to be a peacekeeper. But times are changing and East Timor is beginning to reach travellers itineraries.

At this stage (2013) the nation is for the more intrepid travellers but if that is not your thing than diving is its big selling point. Part of the Coral Triangle the region is said to have around 500 species of reef building coral with the highest concentration of coral reef fish and coral species.

I read that due to the Indonesian occupation, dynamite fishing didn’t happen because dynamite was not allowed due to the fragile state of the region. With all that info, my expectations were high.

There are a few options to go diving with a new dive shop popping up whilst I was there. There are 3 options that are most common, Atauro Island, the coast and local dive. The first two options require multiple people to go so I went with the popular Dive Timor Lorosae (

On my second day it was Sunday and took the Atauro Island option since most of the time weekends were the only time to get out there. Atauro Island is 30 kms across the Weter Strait.

Unfortunately I hit the “ON” button of my new purchase the GO Pro the night before so I have no photos of the pinnacle of diving in Timor-Leste. Visibility would have been 30m to infinity but aquatic animals were few and far between. I did 6 dives all up and apart from some rays I saw a handful of large fish. Instead the dive is about the coral. Table, brain, staghorn you name it with giant fan coral waving in the currents.

Local dives are usually within a half hour from Dili east or west. Whilst an hour east takes divers to coral reefs a walk in from the shore. I’m not going to say that my diving experiences were the best I’ve ever had but it does provide what many dives in the world lack, an abundance of coral and for that it is worth a visit.

I had spent 4 days in Dili and during that time I tried to organise a motorbike to hire for the remainder of my stay. Unlike Indonesia where tourists were saying hiring costs $4 a day. Timor-Leste set me back $22.50 per day and that was a good deal. The expense is partly due to the horrific roads that these bikes have to contest with.

I got myself a 110 cc bike that should never see outside Dili. My book informed that the road from Dili to the second biggest city Baucau as the best roads in the country so I tried to take advantage as much as I could. Even with flat straights I occasionally had to slow down for bits of road that washed away during the rainy season.

I reached the 76km mark just over half way when the deception of the roads took full effect. At times the soil underneath the road sinks ever so slightly and shadows camouflage the dips or potholes.

Ahead of me was some gravel covered in shadows, I slowed on my hand break but immediately in front of me 20m before the gravel was this dip that surprised and jolted me from my seat. The roads are generally one and a half lanes with blind spots with the road sharply swerving around hills.

In an attempt to stay on my side I chocked the front break to compensate losing control of the rear brake. I reach the gravel and by this time I lock up and begin my descent into leaving my mark on the East Timor surface.

Had I done this at any other point of my trip, even 10 seconds later my trip would have been ruined which was my first thought. It had nothing to do with my well being, the condition of the hired companies asset. It was the thought that I had just ruined my trip. Instead as the Australian army guys pick up my bike and test it out, the three 4WDs scramble their way off the road. I realised it had just enhanced it.

I think I was more startled about the army officers being jolly on the spot then the accident itself. I mean it was a given, I’ve had minor crashes before so it was bound to happen. Every time I hand over a deposit to hire a motor vehicle I just assume I am not going to get it back.

I think the guy who patched me up must have been dreaming about this moment for his whole stint in the country. All that training would rarely be put into practise, especially with the relative peaceful existence the nation now holds. I’ve never seen someone work with such efficiency.

Out of the car comes a backpack full of first aid gear that gets slammed on the bonnet. His enthusiasm was evened out by my lackadaisical attitude toward the incident. I looked at the fluids bag in his hand and thought, “Whoa wait hang on minute lets no get carried away here.” He informs, “Now this is salt water!” And rips it open with his teeth and douses my cuts on my knees, hands and arm.

With my shirt ripped to shreds on my left shoulder I had to change shirts and the guy was kind enough to give me his F-FDTL brown shirt. As I was getting patched up I took it as an opportunity to talk to people who have perhaps another perspective of the situation in the nation. But perhaps I was startled because I can’t recall much of the conversation apart from them being there as consultants with the local army.

I had bandages to last me a day and that was a concern for the army nurse. He brought fear into the event by proclaiming, “You need to be careful you don’t get this infected because you might loose your arm.” Another chimed in, “Yeah remember Gazza? He had to get evacuated to Darwin.”

“Yeah but that was because he didn’t look after it.”

This conversation stayed with me for the rest of my time here. I questioned myself regularly, “Is this place really worth losing my arm?”

But in a desperate attempt to have some adventure in my life again, knowing full well that work was only a week away. I hopped on my bike and drove off after thanking them repeatedly because not only did they help save my arm. But they gave me extra bandages and antiseptic wipes to last me for the remainder of my stay.

The damage should have been a third less though. I left my hand sanitisers in my main bag in Dili and I had these Gridiron catches gloves in my backpack. I decided not to use them since this was the good road and the plan was to wear them after the first day.

So because of my stupidity it took me 45 minutes to get ready as I had to make sure my cuts were covered and sanitised. At the end of each day showers were a contortioned affair. See my crash was, I am told, a classic motorbike fall with me hitting and then sliding on one side of the shoulder. So I was left with – left hand good, right hand bad. Right shoulder/arm good, left shoulder/arm bad and left knee good, right knee bad. I was unsure on the quality of the water so I bucket showered making sure the drips of water missed my cuts.

I stayed a night in Baucau at the very clean Melita Guesthouse that looks down to the sea from the cities elevated position. I decided to air out my sores since all day they would be covered and deep into the night this eclectic current shocks me awake.

I look down toward my knee and I see some bug scurrying away. An hour later consciously waiting for the second coming I get this other shockwave jolting from my right knee. It’s a cockroach and it had taken a nibble into the deepest part of my sore. I covered up and caught it 20 minutes later aiming for my shoulder.

The next morning I packed my bags and as I packed the guesthouses dog smelt my sores weeping and took a likely to it. I yelled at her to go away with success. However once I checked out and began my walk up the stairs the dog gave a friendly bite to my right gastrocnemius. I yelled at her again and she didn’t back off thinking I am pulling up lame. I present my helmet to indicate I’m ready to get physical and she was on her way. Successfully avoiding rabies.

After the cockroach bite I was definitely heading to the hospital, I had this feeling that something was guiding me to this story as if as long as I keep going I’ll get back safely. That omen came about when 15 minutes after the accident I ran out of petrol.

Gas stations as we know it are left for the capital and one I saw near the unused Baucau airport. To fill up at other times villagers use finished 1.5 litre water bottles and refill with petrol selling them from little wooden stands in front of their homes. They pour the contents in via a cylinder and a sheet that act as a filter.

As my bike rocked toward exhaustion I soon stopped immediately. I sit there cursing at my misfortune, “first the crash now this!” I look left and it is one of the petrol stands. I smirk, walk 3 paces, lift open my seat and point to my petrol gauge, “FULL!” I knew then that as long as I respect the adventure I’d be fine.

Baucau hospital is located up the hill from the main plaza. The driveway is a jagged road of loose rocks and large potholes. I nervously negate a path and park my bike. I am directed by locals to the emergency ward. There I get the best treatment that the hospital can provide.

I sit on a bed and a nurse comes over with a swivel table full of medicines that appear sterile. With cotton wool she entrenches iodine all over. The previous day I had impressed the army officers for calmly taking the salt water and antiseptic without a grimace but this time my feeling was back and the pain allowed me to grimace. I had to take my shirt off again and that meant an audience surrounded me. Some 20 people looked on as a white man was getting treatment in the local hospital.

With no bandages available I was given a prescription from the doctor, which was for Ibuprofen for anti-inflammatory and Amoxillin. The latter I was allergic to when I was a kid. I looked at the word and was going to tell the doctor and thought, “You know what its better keep my arm and have a temporary rash.” Fortunately I have discovered I’m not allergic to Amoxillin anymore.

I handed over my prescription and got my medicine and tried to pay and the lady insisted that it was free. Treatment for locals are free and so I too got it for free. With no bandages to give me I bandaged myself in my room and continued my way east toward Com – the end of the coastal road.

My intention was to get more local experiences here and get more people photos but with my injuries including sprained wrists, bruised left shoulder, elbow, grazed left arm and a sore rib. Meant taking photos was an arduous experience. Whilst communication resorted to the locals concerned about my injuries. I was lucky with my wrists however as the only movements allowed was to ride the bike. Any less flexibility the trip would have been finished.

To communicate I spoke Spanish in hope that it resembled Portuguese and that some locals knew Portuguese. If that failed I’d speak English followed by non-verbals like a shrug of the shoulder and a smile. The local language is Tetun with Indonesian and Portuguese languages used during their reins these languages have influenced the local language.

On the road, the scenery drops off from the spectacular first 30-40kms from Dili. Occasionally there were evidences of Portuguese influence with a ruined fort in Lautem or the bright pink Pasouda de Baucau. Apparently there are some Japanese bunkers from WWII but my condition restricted that exploration.

I arrived at Com where the road finishes abruptly at the Indonesian built pier that was built to unload military supplies to the area. There is said to be good snorkelling in Com but coral is instant from the shore and with the state of my body I walked around the fishing village instead.

Com is the only resort style tailored for tourists with the one road of the village stretching for a few hundred metres lined with guesthouses and one resort. I was told here that asylum seekers were a recent issue when a boats motor failed on their way to Australia and the East Timor police kept them in isolation eventually asking them to leave and sent back to Indonesia. These issues seem distant to the peaceful set up of Com.

I stayed in a bungalow and upon giving me the key the owner asked me what I wanted for dinner in 4 hours time so he could prepare. Food in the coastal districts was mainly fish and rice made in coconut milk. However in Dili the food was more hit than miss with some of the best Indian I have had. In Com they used some special local spices in the sauce that just made the dish. Every region appears to have their spice and this meal was the pick of the bunch.

My next day I dreaded - the beginning of the day was nice enough, minus the roads. As I passed towns like Desa Rasa and Mehara where the occasional traditional houses called fatluku. They are wooden homes held aloft by 4 tall wooden stilts ala the Queenslander, which prevents flooding during the rainy season. Mehara was also the hideout in the 1980’s for the nations 1st president (once independence was reinstated) Xanana Gusmao.

Getting closer to Tutuala I passed the crocodile home of Lake Ira Lalaro. The crocodile is a sacred animal and I heard a story here about how a young kid was taken by a crocodile. Days later locals caught and killed the perpetrator. This caused outrage in the nation.

At one stage the road veered off into the bushes and I did have a brief thought that I am heading toward crocodiles. Street signs are minimal to none. The only sign I recall was the crocodile warnings. Town names were never shown. The only signs were at major junctions and I saw a sign saying “8KM VALU . JACO” I turn right and bobbled my way down and recall what was in my guidebook.

“It turns to a rough rocky road for the last 3km – strictly for 4WDs and a good test of your wits.” I was about 400m down from the turn off and the road was already in a rough state but I had turned off now and there was no looking back. No point leaving the bike on the road because everything looked the same.

Around half way, there was a pond in the middle of the road and a minute gap between logs on the left and the muddy pond on the right. A local was there and looked at me like every local who looked at me that day. “Are you serious you are going down this road on that bike?” He used his machete to mark out my path through the mud.

Machete’s are in many males hands in the districts and it starts from a young age. One smart arse kid threw a bottle at me first day and after that I always feared a kid will throw a machete at me but it didn’t happen. Instead most kids just expressed their excitement of seeing a whiteman not in a 4WD or in uniform.

I changed shirts on this day because when wearing the brown F-FDLT shirt locals saw me as a Good Samaritan under false pretences. I also was concerned that perhaps there might be some locals anti-western involvement in the nation. The mountains were the hideouts and strongholds of FRETLIN the major group fighting for independence and now a political party (making the transition similar to FMLN in El Salvador.)

But with a new shirt on and an adult wading his machete in the muddy water I was left with the thought of losing my arm again. I rev my bike a little and say to myself knowing if I fall to the right I will be saturated in mud and a days drive to a hospital whose bandages are cotton wool, “Well this is it. This is the moment!”

I go for it and succeed with my heart in my mouth knowing that the next day I had to go through it all over again. 1km later I hit the worst road I have encountered with myself in the drivers seat.

It was a nightmare that would not go away the whole trip. First night was my crash, the next night was the near puncturing of the front tyres and on this night it was the thought of having to climb up what I eventually successfully drove down on.

The road was full of loose rocks and majority of the remaining 3kms was spent on the hand break and balancing with my feet. At times this was painfully slower than walking, more so because my wrists were not in tip-top shape causing shoulders and arms muscles strain from overuse.

On the way back it was mostly revving in first gear to the max and walking the bike up. With the road jagged and parts washed away this walking technique caused me to almost run over my ankle.

Sometimes I’d like to see my escapades in third person just to see how much of an idiot I am. I was saying to myself “let go of the accelerator, let go… let go!” I just couldn’t do it. Perspiration is dripping off my face and the concentration required to drive these roads was draining and my brain couldn’t tell my right hand to stop. Eventually my brain told the rest of the body to let go (under the pressure of my back tyre on my left ankle) and I let the bike go to crash 10cms away into a pile of more loose rocks.

When I got down I reached Tutuala Beach and my reward was the sight of the sacred Jaco Island. It is uninhabited and is what islands are like with no human interference. Pristine islands are not manicured like the resorts but always have some driftwood or coral washed up on the shore. My time here was perhaps different to others who come here.

Whereas most people come here for the snorkelling or diving (if pre-organised) Turtles, abundance of fish is all said to be seen here but mine was therapeutic. The silence of the place, the solitude as the locals boat drives back across to Tutuala Beach agreeing to meet me back in 2 hours. The ultramarine blue of the water as I waded near the shore I felt this healing power come over my sores. A guy later told me that salt water in the sea is not good for you because organisms in the water want to move to somewhere warm and they’d move to your open wound.

I didn’t let that thought spoil my sense of peaceful rejuvenation. I looked at my arms and my bruising started to show up like blue glow sticks imbedded in my arm. I had two blue wristbands and my left arm was bruised to the elbow. Jaco Island was like the rest of the nation safe and peaceful the only danger left now was myself. I tried to swim but the current was strong in the late afternoon and I struggled to make a stroke with my left arm.

After taking 90 minutes to crawl down to Tutuala beach it took me 2 hours to travel the 8km back, having to stop at times to avoid over heating. At one stage the bike appeared doomed in getting up the hill but a reshuffle of rocks I gave one last effort and made it, barely. It is safe to say I will try my best to not put myself through a holiday like this again.

Having said that I am sure I will return. I do hope there will be improved roads in that time. I drove west toward the Indonesian border in hope that I may get to Balibo. The sight where 5 Australian journalists were killed by Indonesian soldiers during the first days of Indonesia’s invasion. The roads were the best I came across but that was for 10kms or so. The rest were poor and in those poor spots it was clear I had had enough. Going over potholes far quicker than I should have and it was not helped when I was told by a mechanic the day earlier that the brakes were kaput and the tread on the tyres were non-existent.

I turned back once I reached Maubara Fort on the water. I handed back my vehicle giving my chances of getting my deposit back minimal. I wore a jumper to cover my arm and gloves for my hand and board shorts to appear casual. I drove in via the left entrance instead of the right so the bike could be parked on the non-scratched side (the bike was already scratched prior I just made them worse.)

The mechanic asks, “Problem?” I mention the brakes were poor and point to the tyre “No bien!” He looks at me as if to say, “Well of course what do you expect?” He drives off to test the bike and the lady walks out the back and hands me $50. She also attempts to give me $22.50. I question why she is giving me money back? She thought that because I was handing the bike back at 5pm instead of 9am the next day I get a days worth of money back.

I tried to explain to her that it is bad business to work the daily rates like that. I soon gave up deciding to leave in case the mechanic comes back and I lose my $50. I refused to take the other money and insist that she keeps it. It appears instead of giving her advise, I feel she took the money as a tip… A thank you present from me for them giving me a bike with minimal brakes, no tyre tread and for almost giving me a severe injury.

With only one night left I went out with a couple of guys from the hostel and hit up the Filipino karaoke bar. I heard Fridays are the only real big nights in Dili but I was never in the capital for them so on a Monday night I capped off how any SE Asian trip should finish, by belting out a diva classic, “My Heart Will Go On.”

Timor-Leste has a long way to go but it is growing, Timor Plaza opened in 2011 and is a western style super mall. I was told by a shop-keeper that across the road, villagers were paid to leave. Protests started and for a while no one was allowed to shop in the shopping centre for fear of damage. That is just an example of what is in stall for the bigger cities. To get international investment modern developments need to take place for outsiders to feel comfortable to call the nation home. Resorts were starting to pop up also with signs of construction. The first high rise building was three quarters complete near Castaway bar.

This is why I came now. I see this place as a developing nation. It also has the option to research the successes and failures of its neighbours and build the model they want. I want to come back 20-30 years from now and see whether it whores itself to the tourist dollar like other destinations in SE Asia. Will it go to the extreme of Bhutan (unlikely) and charge a tourist tax per day to avoid the riff-raff that show no respect for their culture like in Thailand?

Even though my story might sound a bit over dramatised and may steer many people away. I do hope that for those travellers who want a real travel experience they will take my adventures as just that an adventure. Timore-Leste is one of the rare destinations where you are almost pioneering in a way. Pioneering, by truly helping a nation by visiting. I’m not sure if I’d say the nation is worth losing an arm over but it certainly is worth “attempting” to lose an arm over.

**Below is a video of most of the photos to a song that I think fits well with where East Timor is at by The Blind Boys of Alabama**

Additional photos below
Photos: 102, Displayed: 44


28th August 2013

The pioneer before the riff raff, eh?
FYI Jet Lag usually occurs when travelling through 4 or more time zones
29th August 2013

He's back
The Dribbleman...I think you call followers "dribblers"...anyway good to see you back. Timor Leste...thanks for the insights.
30th August 2013

Great to see you blogging again.
Glad you finally got there-- indeed a developing country. Love the trout photos.
30th August 2013

The Dribbleman is Back!
Fantastic to see you return to the world of travel, but what a journey was in store! Hope you don't have such an accident and incident ridden journey again in the future. I almost visited East Timor back in May, but decided to travel to Central Asia instead. It is great to read your detailed account of what I missed.
16th July 2014

good tourism for developing country
glad to know the tourism development in east Timor

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