The one where I become a millionaire

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February 23rd 2009
Published: February 23rd 2009
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As I woke up this morning, having eaten very little for over 24 hours, with no more drinking water, no local currency, and a vague idea of where I was, my life had become concerned with the lower of Maslow’s needs hierarchy. Just like the original cavemen, my primary concerns were then finding water, finding food, nursing my injured leg, and finding a place to get on the Internet.

I’m in Kupang, in a hotel room with a nice firm bed with a clean sheet, a fan, and an “asianised” Western-style toilet - no seat, no toilet paper and no flush. It’s got the cistern at the top, but that’s not even connected. I’m paying 100,000 Rupiah a night for it, which is a lot of money - over $AUS 13. I think I’ll stay here another night or two even though I have a reservation at a cheaper place (run by a friend of the people who ran the place I stayed at in Dili) because my leg hurts after all, there are no taxis in Kupang, and I’m grateful for this place for being open and speaking English at 01:00 a.m.

01:00 a.m. is not a good time to arrive into a strange city about which you know nothing, with no tourist infrastructure to speak of. But that’s what can happen when you take the bus from Dili to Kupang. Kupang is in West Timor, the capital of this province of Indonesia which includes the islands as far west as Sumbawa. Lonely Planet makes it sound easy, but I think Lonely Planet makes these things up by looking at maps. I talked to a couple of people in Dili who took the bus up from Kupang, but I think it might be a bit easier going the opposite direction.

So the Timorese lady who runs the Backpackers in Dili, organised for the bus to pick me up at 06:00. Apparently all her cousins are bus drivers. So I set my alarm for 05:30, packed my stuff, and waited for the bus. Of course, it never came. Even if it had, that wouldn’t have been much use, since for some reason they’d decided to lock the main gate. The 2.5-metre fence, topped (in most places) with razor wire, is - I have it on good authority - climbable, but not something I’m that keen on doing with my sore leg and my backpacks.

Around 07:15 she showed up, and I complained that her cousin didn’t come. She told me that actually the bus doesn’t leave till 09:00 anyway, it’s just that by being picked up at 06:00 I would have saved the taxi fare to the bus depot, which is a fair way out of town.

I was sitting out in the front garden, partly because the door to the living room was locked, partly because I just love being eaten by disease-carrying mosquitoes, but mostly because if you sit just right you can get a very faint signal of an open wireless point from the factory next door. She came and sat with me, and brought me a free breakfast - black coffee and eggs on toast - I’m not sure why - and sat and chatted in good English. She stroked her dog, telling me how in the late 1990s, someone shot him.
“Aww. Why?” I ask.
“Probably they wanted to eat him”, she says sadly.
“Would you eat dog?” I ask “Not this one of course, but an eating dog?”
“They do in Kupang, I think”
“Ahh yes, in
pig penpig penpig pen

a pig pen behind the huts in a small village where we stopped to pee, on the bus on the East Timor side
Kupang”, she says happily, as if it’s fine in Kupang. “They barbeque them I think”

She tells me she took him to the hospital - the person hospital - where they removed a bullet from his neck and she spent $600 on medication for him. I guess doctors in Dili in the late 1990s got to do a whole heap of stuff they wouldn’t get to do back home. For a whole host of reasons it didn’t seem the time or place to ask her about the much greater horrors that went on at that time, where the loss of a dog would have been trivial.

The taxi driver charged me only $3 for the ride out to the bus depot, which is the same as some try to charge for rides around Dili. The local busses don’t go direct to Kupang, they only go as far as the border, from where they turn inland. My original plan had been to try to go up to Balibo to see the Australian monument to the Balibo Five and get at least a bit of the mountain scenery, but I now figured it was getting a bit too late in
Bus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian side

I'm not sure what was going on here but we stopped here for about 20 minutes .. I was trying ot get a photo with the mountains in the background but it did'nt really come out
the day to do that.

On the bus I sat with Natalino, a well-dressed Timorese man probably aged about 30, who speaks good English. He told me he’s studied in Australia - agricultural science - and works for an agribusiness set up by USAid. He gave me his email address and promised me that his brother will show me around when I get to “Yoyga” (Yogyakarta, in Indonesia) in a couple of weeks. His three brothers and one sister are all studying in “Yogya”. I commented how much the scenery looks like Australia, and he told me that if I came back in the dry season it would be all brown, not green like Victoria. I told him he hasn’t been to the right parts of Victoria in summer.

The narrow, winding, road stays on the coast more than the one to Baucau, passing through several little villages, stopping to pick up people along the way. A little old lady, I think well into her 80s, dressed in (I assume) traditional clothing, her lips stained and her teeth rotten from the betelnut which she’s still chewing incessantly, gets on and insists on standing despite everyone offering her a
Bus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian side

same place as previous photo
seat The pig goes on the roof, but the chickens keep quiet enough to stay inside. The buss’ brake-pads are worn through and by the end of the trip it’s squealing like a banshee and smelling.

So I arrive at the little town at the border. The border crossing is quite sleepy, but I have to go through about five different levels of officialdom, I don’t remember how they all go. I never understand land border crossings, all I know is you go in one end, there’s a lot of needless brouhaha and you come out the other end feeling slightly illegal. Neither do I understand why people would live on International borders. If it was me, I’d move. One guy does a very thorough and slow examination of the first 15 cm of stuff in my pack. I’ve had this done so many times, but I’ve never had a proper search. I know it happens, but not to me. So the moral of the story is if you want to smuggle stuff, buy a backpack and put the contraband at the bottom, maybe in your dirty laundry bag. Never put it in your toiletries bag, or
Bus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian side

we stopped here to pick someone up
(if for some reason you’re tempted) sitting in plain view at the very top. They always look there.

I changed $20 into Rupiah with a young boy in the border zone, at a pleasantly good rate for a tout, only 5%!l(MISSING)ess than the bank, plus on the bus I got $5 worth from Natalino. That was a mistake, I should have changed more. I set my clock back an hour. Everyone tried to get me to take a motorbike into the next city, from where i could get a bus to Kupang but they want $US 5, which I think is expensive for Indonesia, and I knew that it was quite a distance so I wasn’t that keen about riding on the back of a motorbike (scooter) again, with all my stuff. So I sit and wait for a mikrolet at the police checkpoint just inside the Indonesian side of the customs. A young guy aged probably about 20 talks to me nonstop, I can’t work out if he actually works for the police or he’s just trying to practise his English. Finally the mikrolet arrives, it takes a while (I feel like maybe 30 minutes)
Bus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian side

these kids wanted their photo taken.
to get into town on a narrow winding road so I’m glad I didn’t take the motorbike, specially as it begins to bucket down rain, soaking my backpack on the roof. The bus drops me off at the ”Timor Travel” office, which books the “tourist” busses (I don’t believe that in the wet season there’s enough tourists on either side of the island to fill a bus). A young man with impeccable English rushes to assist me. I ask for a bus to Kupang. It turns out the last one has just left.

The girl behind the counter tries to book me one for the next day. I have my heart set on Kupang in the same day, and it offends my “professional pride” to take a “tourist bus”, even if there’s no tourists in it. I ask the guy who helped me if there’s a local bus. He yells out something in Bahasa Indonesian to his mates and it turns out that there is. The bus depot is far out of town though, and the only way to get there is on a motorcycle, which costs, you guessed it, $5 (almost as much as the entire bus ride).
Bus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian sideBus - Indonesian side

These kids wanted their photo taken. I think there's something wrong with my camera, it's not quite how I framed the shot.

So there I was again on the back of a motorcycle in the rain (which has let up a little by now) on a hilly road, but this time with my 16 kg backpack balanced between the driver’s legs and my day pack containing everything important like my computer and my camera, on my back. We got there safely, and in paying him the $5 I used up the last of my small change US currency. It would have been slightly cheaper to pay in Rupiah, but I was starting to realise that I might not have enough.

After about an hour’s wait on the bus, with just me and a couple who spoke not a word of English, with whom I had a whale of a time having them teach me to count in Bahasa Indonesian and telling them about my trip (with place names and photos on my computer) the bus finally took off. However we didn’t go on the road to Kupang, instead we went up every back alleyway picking up people. At one spot the bus stopped for maybe 10 minutes, and a crowd of children thronged me. A few try to speak a

drain in Kupang, Indonesia
little English, but most just want to stare, I got the feeling that they’ve never seen an unshaven 188-cm, blue-eyed white man dressed in strange dishevelled clothes before. One boy points to my camera and asks if I’m “shooting”. I don’t know how to answer that. One of them tells me they’re all from Timore-Leste (East Timor). I’m not even mentioning all the times a crowd of adults gathered around to use their one- or two-word English vocabularies. That happened pretty much any time I went anywhere or the bus stopped.

One of the boys who speaks a little English suddenly turns earnest:
“You Catholic?” he asks me
“No”, I say. I wonder if this means he assumes I’m Muslim, but we don’t have a common vocabulary for me to find that out, and he can’t be more than 10.

An old lady who must be well into her 70s at least, wearing what I think might be traditional East Timorese dress, her lips and teeth stained from betelnut gets on the bus. They make me understand that “Mamma” is also from Timor-Leste (East Timor), and also speaks no Bahasa Indonesian, only Portuguese. And Tetun, I assume. This

beach in Kupang (same spot as next photo)
makes sense as she would have had to be over 40 when Indonesians invaded, too old to learn a new language fluently. I wonder why there are so many East Timorese on the “wrong” side of the border. Throughout the rest of the trip from time to time she would check across for me from where she’s sitting a few rows forward, and smile.

As the bus pulls out, just as the kids are forced off, the earnest 10-year-old looks me in the eye. “You pray. You be Catholic” he orders me.

It seems as if most of West Timor agrees with him. Particularly at first, I see churches everywhere, and the Madonna with child, and white gravestones with crosses. In all the time before it got dark, I saw only one small mosque. Strange; my information was that West Timor is Muslim. Maybe I was wrong, that’d explain the dog-eating thing then (dogs, of course, are haraam in Islam). People get onto the bus at all sorts of weird places, until it’s jam-packed full, with people sitting in the aisles. At one or two points it turns off the highway along a muddy, potholed, dirt track through

I don't know what these guys were doing, but they wanted their photo taken
the jungle.

We pass tiny villages, thatched-roofed houses built of bamboo, rice plantations, corn plantations, families playing in the dirt outside their houses, villages where the whole village is having some open-air get-together on a lazy Sunday evening, and two boys playing a game that appears to involve a handcrafted wooden board and a lightweight puck where the aim appears to be to blow the puck into the opponent’s square, by blowing harder than him, and always the backdrop of some really beautiful mountains, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to photograph well for you.

After a while it got dark and the music started to get to me. I don’t know much about music, so I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, but particularly if you don’t understand a word and it’s played at ear-splitting level, it gets to you after 12 hours or so. They seem to be written for Karaoke singing. Each song seemed the same, and seemed to contain only about four notes, and no particular beginning or end. Because it was jet black most of the time, I can’t say much about the majority of the road between Atambua and Kupang,
my wealthmy wealthmy wealth

part of my Rp 3,125,500 wealth, after I already spent a bit of it
except that it was a good quality road, very windy, and has a bloody annoying soundtrack!

The bus stopped periodically for people to go into the bushes to pee, and at one spot stopped at a local eatery for people to go eat. As well as being a bit unsure of what’s edible, I also rightly judge that I don’t have enough Rupiah, and with my smallest $US note being $20, I can’t even try to pay with that. So went hungry. Before the bus took off again, of course, a crowd of people assemble around me trying to practise their English and staring at my leg.

I think in the previous blog I might have exaggerated how well my leg is healing. What happens is the open bit develops a fair scab every night, but then as soon as I move my leg at all, it tears open again. Even walking with the most pronounced limp possible opens it up because it’s right where the muscles move a lot. Because when I tried to bandage it up it hurt like hell when the bandage stuck, I’m leaving it open, and wearing shorts because long trousers rub, so it provides a constant source of conversation even for people whose English is limited to pointing and going “oooh”.

So we arrive in Kupang at 01:00, and I have no idea where to go. I have an idea that the place I was supposed to be staying will be shut and no-one will know where it is. The bus drops everyone off at their homes or hotels, so they ask me where I’m going. By now I’m kind of resigned to finding a quiet place to sit waiting for sunrise, but I don’t have the vocabulary to say that in Bahasa Indonesian. My Lonely Planet lists one “nice” hotel in Kupang (being an “On a Shoestring” guide it doesn’t normally list nice places) and I figure that it’s more likely than a losmen to be open at 01:00, so I tell them the name of that place. They drop me off there and drive off. A few guys are out the front smoking. They tell me that it’s “full”, which I guess means they don’t want to open it up. They suggest I try the place down the road. It looks shut too, but just as I’m about to walk away a little man emerges, speaking perfect English, which is more than I could say for myself after 16 hours on the road and 18 hours without food. “Of course we do” he says, when I ask if they have a room. I could have kissed him.

In my room, I crack open my meagre supply of food - a can of tuna and three muesli bars - and go to sleep. In the morning I take a short walk around Kupang. I go to the bank and change $US270, and for that receive a massive pile of notes, Rp 3,125,500. In a childish way it tickles my fancy a bit to have three million of anything. For some reason, I can’t remember the Bahasa Indonesian word for “eight” or “nine” but I can remember the word for “pharmacist”, so I find one quickly. They give me antibiotics, anti-inflammatories (I don’t think it’s inflamed) and an antiseptic cream. They charge me a fortune for it, the equivalent of about $AUS 30. So even in Indonesia I can’t stick to my daily budget.

After that I go to book a ticket on the ferry to Flores. The only way to get to the office again of course is on the back of a motorbike. No-one speaks English, and “Ferry ... Larantuka” should be pretty understandable in any language in which “Ferry” is a common word for a ferry, and “Larantuka” is a place name, but it seemed more complicated than that. They made me write down my name, then asked something in broken English that sounded like “eight”. I was at a loss. Eventually I guessed “weight”? I rubbed my stomach to look fat and made what I thought were weight-like gestures. “Ahh!” they said. I didn’t know why a large ferry should care about my weight, but airplanes sometimes do, so you never know.

I wrote “113 kg”

“Tidak, no, no, no”. One of them who could write a bit of English but not speak it, wrote on a bit of paper ... “age”. Ah. Not 113 then. They were still laughing about it when I left ten minutes later. I still think that my weight should be more interesting to the ferry company than my age.

I decide to rest my leg and try to give it time to really scab up. I put the whole tube of antiseptic cream on, and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed trying not to move my leg and kind of zoning out.


24th February 2009

fascinating reading
An absolutely super blog, Daniel. I follow it with great interest, and can't wait to read about your next adventure! Tough luck about your leg; I really hope it'll heal up quickly ... Airing it is good. As for eating dog? If you don't try it you'll never be able tell poor Jo what she was missing in China!!
24th February 2009

Same as with everyone Daniel, love reading your blog first thing in the morning :-) There seem to be a lot of people wanting you take their photo. Just out of interest, how do you know they want you to take their photo if there is a language barrier? PS> I'm going to go against the majority and say don't eat Lassie!!
24th February 2009

Hi Jason, Thanks for the comment, not sure I'll get to try hot dog here anyway, and AFAIK it's not on the menu in the other parts of Indonesia that I'm going to. With the photo thing, if you get 20 kids clamouring around you going "Foto!! Hey Mister, FOTO!!" it's pretty obvious. You can probably see that in the photos I put up in yesterday's blog. With adults if they call "Hey, Foto?" and smile scarily, or gesture and point shyly to the camera, you can pretty much tell. Of course, you raise the camera slowly and and watch their reaction just as confirmation. So far having a digital SLR has been fun. I think in Timor people assumed I was a journalist. It's the only place a taxi driver has ever asked me "Ah, Australian - so are you military or civilian". Cheers, Daniel
25th February 2009

Go the media
Hi Daniel, I think you should Google a picture of a media pass used by the UN, print it out at the next Internet cafe, and hang it from a shoelace (or string if you have any) around your neck. It should get you into all sorts of place (or trouble) and will make a good blog topic! Hope the leg gets better - you'll notice a vast number of people in SE Asia have scars on their legs in the same place as yours - all from similar bike accidents. You're now almost a local!

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