Timor-Leste, Timor, a chieftain, exquisite beauty and a little love
Day 2,159 since October 10th 2013: 187 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Christmas came early in Dili
If I had to recap EVERYTHING which has happened in the past two weeks then you would be reading a novel right now. So in trying to keep it “short” I’ve left a great many things out and have gone superficially across much. And yet this entry is still quite something! Enjoy.
Timor is an Island in South East Asia bordering the Pacific Ocean. It is in the far east of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 diverse islands and home to the first new country of this century. Do not be fooled by that sentence. South Sudan is the newest country in the world since it came into existence in 2011. But Timor-Leste (East Timor) officially became a country in 2002 (newest of this century). Timor is not a large island but it is large enough and full of heart. It is basically split down the middle in east and west. The western part is Indonesia with the exception of a small Timorese exclave called Oecusse, where the Portuguese first landed in 1515. The exclave reminds me of the Russian exclave Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania. You might think that the people of Timor-Leste originate from Indonesia but you would be wrong. The first people appear to have arrived from Australia. "Timor" derives from timur, the word for "east" so when we say East Timor or Timor-Leste then we are saying “east east”. That sort of thing is called a tautological toponym.
Why the heck would I not shave for this woman!! ;)
I reached Kupang on the Indonesian side of Timor after four nights onboard the good ship “KM Bukit Siguntang” from Pelni’s fleet. Pelni is the national ferry/cargo company of Indonesia and has helped out several times. I was bound to meet my fiancée for the 21st time since the Saga took off in 2013. So I did not linger at the ferry. Disembarking went swift and I soon found myself in a taxi (Grab) heading towards the hotel we had booked. My fiancée had arrived a few hours before me so I did not have the chance to greet her in the airport. On route to the hotel the driver and I followed the coast and I spotted several monkeys on the roadside. Naturally this made me think I would see many more but in reality those would be the only wild ones I saw on Timor for the next two weeks. We reached the hotel and there she was!! The woman I proposed to on top of Mt. Kenya, the woman who has supported me throughout the Saga, the woman who recently completed her 2nd Ironman, the woman I will someday marry; the woman I love! If you think I got this far on my own during the past near six years then you are gravely mistaken. I had a lot of support. Family, friends, fans, followers and many more have assisted in a great deal of ways. My fiancée has been especially supportive in every way imaginable. Long distance relationships are hard work and we have had our ups and downs. But we are strong together and we are a committed team. It takes no time at all for us to “find” each other when we reunite. It took her three flights to come and find me this time.
Bathing in surreal surroundings (picture by Arwin)
The next day we went exploring. Timor is not well developed in terms of tourism but the island has a lot to offer. It’s just more work. Some speak English but many do not. Googling can give you some ideas of what to see and how to get there. But a lot of information is vague and outdated. Timor felt completely safe to me and extraordinarily friendly. Like really over the top friendly. So if you are looking for a good adventure then Timor could be a great destination for you. Our target for the day was “Gua Kristal” (crystal cave) and after shanghaiing a local driver we managed to arrive. The cave appeared to be surrounded by a stone wall and some young boys had followed us from the road to the locked gate. Once we arrived one of the boys shouted out a name and another kid appeared with a key and requested a very small amount of money. After that we were free to head towards the cave entrance. As we approached the hole in the ground we encountered a French couple coming out. We quickly greeted them and headed underground. The stones were slippery but it was manageable. As we approached the crystal clear blue cave water we heard voices and quickly discovered that we were not alone. Within the water two Dutch friends were enjoying a swim. One wearing swimming trunks and the other as God intended him. This was our first meeting with Arwin and Laurent. Two childhood friends since some forty years ago who were on a joint holiday. Laurent has made a life for himself in Melbourne, Australia, while Arwin lives with his family in the Netherlands. Great guys!
The Saga shop is open for business and the first orders have already been delivered. Bob in Uganda is running it with strict competence :) Click on the image or HERE to go browsing and see if we have something for you. Maybe this "People Are Just People' t-shirt :)
We spent a few hours in the cave to the point where I got cold and got a cold. My fiancée was fine and so were the Dutch. We all left the cave together and decided to join forces on a walk along the coast. Arwin was particularly interested in finding some good coffee. We caught a “bemo” (small local bus) to the coast and walked from there. Enjoyed the sunset and the company. It turned out that Arwin and Laurent were staying at the same hotel as us. Furthermore my fiancée and I were planning on heading to Soe the following day and so were they. Albeit the Dutch had already organized visiting the unique island of Menipo on their way there making a daytrip out of it. We were soon invited to join them and the four of us split the costs. That night my fiancée, whos name is Le, and I had some super disgusting sushi. It is one of our traditions when we meet. We try to see movie in the theatres when possible, we play cards and we have sushi. Not necessarily on the same day. But that night we found a “sushi restaurant” at a mall and ordered way too much. The amount would have been fine if the sushi had not been covered in mayonnaise, ketchup and melted cheese!?! What the heck?! Our terrible meal was accompanied by an amateur song contest in which amateur is the key word. It was very loud though and since the “sushi restaurant” was open to the centre of the mall where the contest took place…well…yeah. Not a great meal. The restaurant could of course not be blamed for the volume – but the staff was drawn to the contest like magnets so service was pretty low. We quit halfway through our meal which has never happened before. And it should be said that eating sushi in Indonesia is kind of wrong anyway as the local food is excellent as it is. But tradition is tradition.
Sushi with melted cheese and mayonnaise anyone?
The next day we had breakfast, packed our bags and met up with Arwin and Laurent in the lobby. And the adventure began. The main roads on Timor are quite good but the minor roads surely are not. We made a stop at a triple waterfall before reaching a dirt road (in horrible condition) which over the next many hours led us through some very local life. Timor is predominantly Christian and often we would find three large crosses erected next to another on the roadside. Basic houses formed basic villages and I would on and off be reminded of rural areas I have seen across the African continent. The roadsides were also often decorated with colourful flags and banners which likely celebrated Indonesia’s 74th year of independence (from the Dutch). We finally reached a ranger station near Menipo Island and signed in. A fee was paid and then we were accompanied by some ten rangers or similar. We headed towards the river, the men brought a mounted a motor on a boat, we all got in and away we went. We were scouting for crocodiles but our first encounter with nature became hundreds of thousands of massive bats! Eventually the rangers spotted a crocodile on land. It was well hid between the mangrove forest and far above the water given the low tide. The rangers startled the croc, while still in the boat, and it made a run for the water and flew for a second before breaking the surface with a splash! I would have loved to get a photo or video of that but I was nowhere near expecting it!
Those are huge bats - not birds!
Arriving at Menipo Island.
Getting that perfect beach photo takes a few tries (photos by Arwin).
We landed on the nearby shore of Menipo and walked across the beautiful landscape. Turtles come to the seaside of Menipo and lay their eggs. Crocodiles live there. The island has dear and monkeys too. We did not see the monkeys but we did encounter a dear tame enough for us to touch it. An hour later we left the island and continued on our way to Soe. In the process our small car had to cross a river which was quite something given that it was certainly no 4WD. However our driver was by no means phased by it so I guess it was normal. Soon we found a brilliant piece of newly constructed road which was a relief as we headed into the sunset. The evening ended in Soe at a hotel which to me resembled a cross between a motel, a truck stop and an Austrian alpine hut! Weird but comfortable. It just so happened to be overrun by some thirty World Vision humanitarians as we were there. By the way: if you dream of becoming famous then I think you should visit Indonesia just to try it on for size. Especially if you look like a westerner. People are very kind and very forthcoming. And a lot of people are not shy in asking you if you are up for a selfie. Within a few hours you are easily approached by 30-50 people and you will quickly realize that walking down the street has become an exhausting affair if you want to stay polite and say hello to everyone. Privacy is mostly found behind closed doors. It is “hello mister” and “hello madam” left and right all the time. If that appeals to you then you might just like being famous. I don’t think it’s a life for me.
Amazing company! As they traveled ahead of us we have been fed all sorts of tips in advance long after we parted :)
The next day Le and I wanted to reach Fatumnasi in the mountains and the Dutch had plans for visiting a few cultural villages before slowly making their way towards Timor-Leste. We were also heading towards Timor-Leste but had more time on our hands so we said farewell and split up. We really enjoyed our time with Arwin and Laurent who are both super interesting and curious people. They clearly loved diving into local culture, learning and using the local language and speaking with people. Isn’t that just the way it should be when you visit a country? Before noon Arwin and Laurent had secured a driver, price and ride to their next destination and away they went. Le and I were still trying to work out how to reach Fatumnasi, a small village, which was merely 30 km (19 mi) away. However it was rural life and finding transport when nobody spoke English was work. If you are just backpacking then I’m sure you could make it from one village to the next and eventually reach Fatumnasi from Soe at low cost. However we wanted some efficiency and comfort so we kept asking around. Meanwhile I bought a simcard, drew some extra cash from an ATM and together we had some noodles at a surprisingly modern café. It didn’t take long before we were on the phone with the owner of the café and she organized a 4WD to come and pick us up and bring us the two hours to Fatumnasi. The landscape was unbelievably gorgeous. The people of Fatumnasi certainly know how to pick a spot!! Fields left and right. Great views. Very idyllic! A regular car could have made the way to Fatumnasi with an experienced driver behind the wheel but still a 4WD seemed appropriate. If you are ever in the region then try to reach out for Jemry Saluk (+62 852-5328-2332). You can find him on WhatsApp and he speaks English well. Jemry is a tour operator and will offer you a fair price. The Dutch used him and passed the number to Le and I. We ended up using him a few days later. Highly recommended.
From our photo-shoot with Mateos who is far more modern than he looks here. He encouraged the photos. Not sure we would have had any with him if he had not suggested it :)
In Fatumnasi Le and I were planning to visit a homestay but couldn’t get a hold of the host. It turned out that the host is the chieftain of Fatumnasi and that his grandfather or great grandfather was the first to settle there. His name is Mateos Anin and he is somewhat legendary. I think he has been featured on TV as well. His number is 085239890563 and you may want to try calling him several times as reception in the area isn’t the best. We just showed up and were immediately welcomed. There was a gathering of people at his address when we arrived. Perhaps some forty people or more under a thatched roof. They were listening to a man in traditional dress speaking. That man was Mateos. He speaks some English, stopped addressing the others for a moment and invited us to come and sit front centre while he then continued speaking a language to the others which we did not understand a word of. We sat there for some fifteen minutes before Mateos once again approached us and invited us for coffee in a nearby hut while he once again returned to the others and continued speaking to his audience. Later we learned it was a delegation from Kupang and a meeting relating to tourism in the area. I guess our arrival proved appropriate given the subject.
We enjoyed staying at Mateos place where we were given a traditional round hut to sleep in. My cold from the crystal cave had worsened but no more than I could still function. We slept well and the next day Mateos drew a basic map for us as we attempted to hike up Mt. Mutis which peaks at 2,417 meters (7,929 ft). The nature reserve which surrounds the mountain is just stunning. I don’t know if I’ve seen forest like that before and it was hard to believe we were in Indonesia. I guess it speaks to the diversity of the islands? At times I thought we could have been in Austria, Swaziland or Denmark? Or perhaps in Fangorn forest in J.R.R. Tokien’s fictional world of Middle-earth. Several of the trees could certainly have been Ents. It was well worth the effort to get there. We had to cover quite some distance to reach the peak and return though. And we quickly realized that we would be returning in the dark. We pushed ahead regardless and made it to the summit…turned around and made it as far as we could before the sun had set. As it got dark the stars appeared on the night sky. All of them!! The Milky Way was clear and the forest was pitch dark. My cold had been bothering me the entire way up and down and eventually I ran out of battery. I knew I could make it back but I also knew I had far to go…sort of too far. Le was feeding me crackers and we drank the remaining water. A person can live for three days without water. However it would have been nice if we had brought more. At one point I had to lie down to recuperate a bit before soldiering on. Le was fine. My little Iron-woman. While on my back (chewing crackers) I saw a shooting star cross the night sky. We carried on and reached Mateos again around 9pm. He told us that he would have sent some family members out to look for us if we were not back by 10pm. That day we hiked 29.5 km (18.3 mi).
Le overlooking the landscape. People have been guessing where she is from. Guesses have ranged from Japan to Canadian-Chinese (how specific)! We laughed a lot about that one. She was raised in Denmark and has a danish passport. What more is relevant? ;)
The next day a driver we had arranged through Jemry came to pick us up and drove us back to Soe. From there Jemry took over and drove us to Kefamenanu where we spent the night and had our laundry done. Street food is great in this part of the world and often consists of rice with something: meatballs, chicken, fish, beef… We had some delicious fish that night and the next day Jemry was ready to take us to Temkesi, which is a local and very interesting village. Timor is traditionally made up of several kingdoms and there is much to explore. We had our sights set on Temkesi and Jemry of course offered to drive/guide us there. We reached the sacred village and paid our respect (and some Indonesian Rupiah) to the family we visited. Jemry brought betel nut with him which he had passed out to various people along the way and now sat and chewed together with the family in the sacred village. Le and I walked around for a while and explored the rural life. Every so often all the families would assemble and climb a nearby sacred mountain to perform sacred rituals at a sacred rock. Each family in the village had a piece of the sacred mountain near their round hut for everyday small rituals. I’m a little weak on the details but I believe that the number seven had a lot of significance. Like the families assembled every seven years and repairs to the village could only be done every seven years etc.
Even in a rural traditional sacred village people need power ;)
That night we made it to Atambua which is near the border of Timor-Leste (the Saga’s 187th country). We said farewell to Jemry and booked ourselves into a hotel near a bus company which runs buses to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. Unfortunately all seats were sold out. There was another company but the same scenario. Le and I had begun to backup photos and videos from the Saga as we do every time she visits. The hotel in Atambua had a good internet connection so we took advantage of that. We had diner at another hotel which resulted in my MasterCard being temporarily closed but I did not know that yet. It didn’t matter much anyway as Visa Card is the credit card of choice across Timor on both sides of the border. The next morning we got on two different motorcycles which brought us to the local market. From there we boarded a bemo to the border which had me highly suspicious the entire 23 km (14 mi) to the border. Because nowhere in the world do minibuses leave half empty!! We were only four passengers in the bemo with room for at least eleven passengers so something was wrong! I was highly alert and uncomfortable with the situation. What was the driver pulling here? Was he going to try to charge us overprice as the tourists we were? However there was no need to worry. Once we reached the border we paid the driver less than $2 USD and said farewell to a smiling driver.
School children in Indonesia saw us as their prime attraction :)
Together Le and I walked across the border. It was our fifth border crossing together within the Saga: Bolivia/Chile, Germany/France/Spain, Zimbabwe/Zambia and now Indonesia/Timor-Leste. The facilities on the Indonesian side were brand new and looked good. As Denmark is a “Schengen country” we could cross into Timor-Leste as easy as entering a mall. Everyone on both sides of the border were easy going and made it easy for us. Welcome to “east east”.
As soon as we crossed the border and found ourselves in Timor-Leste we began looking for transport to Dili. However almost immediately upon arrival a highly pregnant woman approached us and offered us a ride. She spoke English well and seemed quite nice. It was hot outside. We had about three hours from the border to Dili due to road conditions. I had to feel out the situation before accepting the woman’s offer. How often do you cross a border and immediately get offered a ride by a stranger? But as we spoke to her I began to trust her. She was Indonesian (from Kupang) and married to a Timorese (Timor-Leste). Her visa had expired so she was at the border to get it renewed. Soon after we met her husband who was slightly surprised that his pregnant wife had offered us a ride? But he went with it. I feel ashamed that I did not note their names because these two proved to be utterly wonderful people, great ambassadors for Timor-Leste and definitely more proof that a stranger is a friend you’ve never met before.
Beach near Dili.
We left in their 4WD and chatted along the way. He was educated within tourism and works for the government. She is a lecturer at the university. The coastline of Timor-Leste was jaw dropping beautiful! I pity the people who fly to Dili as they surely miss out on something quite spectacular. A great deal of the road was under construction which slowed us down. Also traffic on the relatively narrow road and the nature of the road curving along the coastline slowed us down. The route from the border to Dili is just 110 km (68 mi) but it takes three hours or more. The lovely couple were expecting their first new born. Their lives were about to change forever. They suggested we stopped along the way to enjoy a seaside lunch and that meal turned out to be the best we had in all our time together on Timor! Amazing fish, rice boiled in coconut milk, and meat on a stick. Brilliant! A few cars rolled up and some people came out. The couple looked surprised and showed great respect to a certain lady among the newly arrived group. The respect consisted of a polite nod and a greeting. The group was seated near the shore and life continued. It was a very simple roadside place and the woman who had just arrived turned out to be non-other than former first lady of Timor-Leste Kirsty Sword Gusmão! She is a highly respected and decorated activists. Oh well…with a population of just slightly more than a million people you are bound to run into people now and again but this was just two hours into our visit. How remarkable.
As in many other countries Timor-Leste has two religions: God and football! this statue of Jesus is 27 meters (88.6 ft) tall. The one in Rio de Janeiro is 30 m (98 ft).
On arrival to Dili Agostinho (as I later learned from Instagram his name is) and his lovely wife dropped us off at our chosen destination and we said farewell. Le and I checked into a hostel/hotel/diveshop, left our baggage and went exploring. Dili is a rather small capital and it feels very local an un-international. It feels quite authentic, very charming, friendly and safe. People greeted us left and right but never asked for selfies. Portuguese is the formal language but everyone speaks Tetum, which is also an official language of Timor-Leste. Several other languages are spoken but Portuguese and Tetum are the main ones. Looking across the landscape of people it varies from more traditional clothing to the modern. You’d easily spot young people with tattoos, piercings, cool haircuts and hip shoes. It is traditional life mixed with modern life as long as you’re in Dili. Once you leave Dili it gets a lot more rural but not so rural that people do not have smartphones. Welcome to 2019. We headed to Timor Plaza which is the local mall and bought a simcard. We checked out which movies were running at the cinema and had a milkshake. Back at the hotel we decided to visit the nearby paradise island of Atauru and began investigating which options we had. It did not take long before we had accepted a package deal with a hotel on the island: boat to and from, food and accommodation included. It wasn’t crazy expensive. $300 USD per person for three nights four days. Definitely above my $20 USD / day budget but to heck with that! My fiancée was by my side and we should be collecting experiences to form a good life. The ferry to and from the island leaves twice a week: Thursday and Saturday. It was Sunday but the hotel had its own boat and could ferry us across. So we went for it.
Off to Atauro as fast as possible (without flying).
The next morning we went on a hunt for some USD. The currency of Timor-Leste is USD and we succeeded in trying five ATM’s before we found one which dispensed cash. It was Monday morning so I figured that they had been emptied over the weekend and that it was too early for the staff to fill them. My nose was still running and accompanied by a cough now and again. We had tried to offer the hotel a deal in which I promote them in a collaboration but they did not take the offer. It’s a common thing I have found that countries of a certain living standard do not possess the awareness of the value a promotion can give them. We found the speedboat which goes across to Atauro in just an hour (the ferry takes three). We were greeted on the beach by some men who did not identify themselves as associated with the hotel. However they were friendly and ready to take us there. They looked surprised when we asked if we had to pay for transport on their motorized tricycles. Atauro has no banks, no ATM’s, no crocodiles, no paved roads and not much of anything except for tranquillity, beauty and kindness. We reached the hotel which was empty apart from the staff. Timor-Leste is not well accustomed to conventional tourism yet so you might wonder about a thing or two. We were greeted with a cup of coffee (something Timor-Leste is famous for) but then we were left on our own for a while. We had communicated with Mia from the hotel prior to our arrival and she said that we could pay at the reception and that we would meet her upon arrival. The next day we learned that she was married to the owner and located in Dili. We never met her. Everyone was friendly but nobody at the empty hotel was very proactive. Eventually we were shown to our room. It was a nice place with a nice view.
Some get tanned, others burn :)
A few days later we met a German who told us that he made it to the island onboard a fishing boat and paid $10 USD. Meals can likely be found quite costs efficient and I’m sure you can put up a hammock nearly anywhere you want. There are also plenty of round huts/beach huts which you can almost certainly stay in for a small amount of money. We were however comfortable with our package deal solution and the price. I’m just saying. The next four days became extraordinary relaxing. I even got burned by the sun. Who would have guessed? (I always wear long pants, a rolled up long-sleeved t-shirt and a hat but let the sun look at my beautiful pale body). My cold continued but the saltwater was good for it. We went snorkelling several times and it was well worth it! Timor-Leste is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s most formidable dive spots.
The waters between Dili and Atauro frequently see turtles, dolphins and whales. We didn’t see any though. There are some very colourful and beautiful corals and the beaches were okay. Le and I have experienced better beaches in Sao Tome but those were also top of the line in my opinion. The food was good, the staff was friendly, we went on a daytrip with a small fishing boat and saw a bit more of the island…same, same but different. The days passed by, we enjoyed being together, Le got tanned, I got red, my sinuses cleared out (a bit) and eventually the day came when we had to return to Dili. We took the ferry back and said farewell to Atauro.
If you wanted to see "Once upon a time...in Hollywood" then you had to get up early. It was only showing at 10:15am? How bizarre :)
Back in Dili we managed to find some good sushi although they only had salmon. We saw a movie at the theatre and went for a few walks in the city. Our meals were mostly local such as bakso (meatballs) or mie (noodles) but one night we went to a very authentic Italian restaurant and had some delicious pasta. A lot of people hardly noticed us as their faces were buried deep into their phones. Yup – its 2019 everywhere. “Merry Christmas” was painted all over town so I guess they are ready for December? The final sand ran out of the hourglass and I brought Le to President Nicolau Lobato International Airport for her first of four flights back to Denmark. The airport was a cute small thing and I couldn’t even locate an ATM. However they did have a Red Cross collection box and a Burger King. As per William Shakespeare “parting is such sweet sorrow”. I second that. Saying farewell and leaving the airport left me with a lonely feeling of emptiness. Like as if I had lost something dear to me. Longing for something I could no longer reach. How lucky I am to have someone that important to me in my life.
Christmas came early this year.
The last 16 countries are far apart. In time and in distance. Stay tuned as we keep on keeping on.
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - looking across the ocean.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga
Tags: world travel, Travel, Grit, Inspiration, Motivation, Solo travel, Once Upon A Saga, Wanderlust, Every country in the world, Danish, Viking, World record, modern viking, no flights, without flying