Deep, aching regret chased my decision to add myself to the human-stuffing inside this microlet – the local bus – whipping through the clamorous streets of Dili, the country’s capital. I had bagged a front row view along with three other men whose buttocks also vied for a share of the two front seats. Despite the unyielding terror my perspective endowed, I was fascinated. I snatched a glimpse of a motorbike as it disappeared behind a two foot long yellow caterpillar. An ambulance, plowing so fast through traffic it was surely going to maim more people than it could ever save, flickered in and out of view amid plastic yellow birds and a limp Manchester United jersey. Where I expected sky, there was only yellow fur.
Almost every inch of glass was covered with cutesy toy animals and football paraphernalia, suckered on, through which the teenaged driver peered. His head jerked left and right to counter the motion of the dangling zoo. His red tinged Mohawk jerked too. And it went on like this – lurching past invisible vehicles, Daffy Duck consuming a gaggle of pedestrians, fleeting thoughts of my family and early life, a vision of a crumpled bus and a blood-stained Winnie the Pooh. Was it my audible whimpering that invited the driver to wink at me and offer a double thumbs-up? Maybe, but considering a Darwin Award was on the cards it seemed a perverse way to offer reassurance, all I could do was fake a smile and will those thumbs back to the only place thumbs of visually impaired drivers should be – on the steering wheel.
Given the circumstances, it was hard to imagine adding another dynamic more crippling to the driver’s ability to concentrate, bar a passenger launching a bucket of ice and another of fire ants onto his lap. For starters the Indonesian pop music that blasted from speakers was jet plane loud and each bass note sent tinny rattles through the chassis, bounced the vast array of juxtaposed cuddly animals and inspired violent head bopping from the front row, me excluded, though I was often jolted involuntarily roof-ward when we smashed into Dili’s cavernous potholes. A weave of scents – petrol fumes, cooking meat, and rank vegetables – gushed through the open windows. Between songs the noise of the streets clawed back, caged roosters crowed, the tangle of careering motorbikes revved and backfired.
I recognised my hostel (superimposed by Tigger) and tapped a coin on the roof to signal my stop. Disgorged now, a jumble of insouciant school children in the back of the bus stared out at me on the pavement. Perhaps only a front seat had offered full appreciation of our breathless foreplay with providence. The driver winked at me once again, yelled ‘See you next time meeester!’ and as he jerked the vehicle back from kerb to chaos I could only stand, watch and ruefully mouth those parting words – Next time meester. Next time. If we did meet again I might be on a bicycle, and on the less survivable side of the windshield.
It seems unforgivable to label anywhere in the world’s largest continent as quintessentially Asian but on the streets of Dili the clichés added up. Meandering roosters, pots of bubbling broth and dumplings, careering motorbikes adding to the heavy fug of hanging smog. These streets belonged to the people, they worked them and they lived them. For almost a year I have pedalled through sanitised, au fait, developed nations. My eyes are wider now, I’m leaning forward, senses piqued, and content because we have a new border to our back and a torrential rain of differences, drenching me with questions. We went in search of some history to help bring to life the newest country of the millennium, one of the poorest in Asia and a land without tourist information, a British consulate, or even a purchasable road map.
Rubble was one of those unanswered questions. In Dili piles of it spot the city, it’s a playground for children, and casts refuges of shade in the late afternoon for the city’s many stray, mangy dogs. It tells a story too – of a wretched history, branded by war and rebellion. The former Portuguese colony was heading for full independence in 1975 when Indonesia invaded with backing from the US who at the time were making warmongering something of a hobby themselves having just ravaged Vietnam. Indonesia was the most important non-communist state in SE Asia and the US wanted them on side. One inconsequential point I should mention: the Timor sea has massive oil reserves, though I’m sure American military strategists and politicians never once gathered around a map of East Timor, rubbed their hands and gawked with glee. That would be wholly unprecedented.
Australia were complicit in the invasion too, and their actions since East Timor’s independence have marked them out as guilty of coveting Timor’s black gold. They have acted in the classic bully boy style rich countries deal with poor ones, at best protectionist and deeply cynical, at worst corrupt and in violation of international law. It’s notable that Australia, in the the midst of a lucrative mining boom, enjoyed negotiating with East Timor only when the fledgling country was particularly desperate, at its lowest ebb, and would take whatever was on offer. More recently East Timor has accused the Aussie government of spying. It is all quite complicated, but there is anger on the streets of Dili, and the walls of the Australian embassy speak of the outrage…
|The crocodile is the national animal of East Timor|
We rode the coast road first which passed by thatched huts clumped in small villages, scented with wood smoke and teeming with shambling goats and tribes of popeyed children who chased at our wheels yelling ‘Bon Dia!’ – a Portuguese welcome that lives on. Our welcome rippled through villages and the smiles seemed to leap out at us, full-faced, awe-inscribed, made with great red-stained lips from chewing the Betel Nut and which made their owners look maniacal, like the Joker from Batman.
I hate to make naff comparisons between countries but there was something of Ethiopia in this part Indonesia, specifically the attention we were gifted, or as was often the case, stabbed with. The polite ‘Bon Dia’ was replaced in busier West Timor by a verbal orgy dominated by screams of ‘MEEEESTER!’ (aimed at both myself and Claire) as in ‘I LOVE YOU MEESTER!’ a favourite, or ‘I NEVER FORGET YOU MEESTER!’. Occasionally ‘I HATE YOU MEESTER!’ or ‘FUCK YOU MEESTER!’ and chased by a hysterical scattering of children. Often though it was just ‘HEY! HEEEEYYY! HEEEEYYYYYYYY!’ The ‘Hey’ is not the kind of ‘Hey, hows it going?’ kind, it’s the kind of ‘HEY!’ that ordinarily is only used in response to a stranger stealing a newborn baby, sprinting off down the street with it under their arm and shouting ‘Dave, go long!’. It’s a ‘Hey!’ that’s not meant to engage anyone or kindle conversation, it’s self-serving, in your face and imbued with unnecessary violence. ‘HEYYYYYYY!’ is not screamed so much as vomited all over you.
The attention luckily isn’t always so affronting, and these islands are a hotbed of hospitality, actually after four years of bicycle travel around the world it’s hard to think of a country in which local people have hosted me as often. We camped outside churches and often in people’s homes where we chewed betel nut, played with kids and aired our flaky Indonesian. Every face threw smiles our way, they bounced off our own. Huts were upended to make space, food was cooked in our honour, children milled around us, adults crouched on their haunches, content just to watch and grin those sardonic scarlet smiles. One particularly benevolent man became so embarrassed after ants got into our panniers and his chicken ran amok and over our sleeping bodies in the night, that he refused our offer of money and we left with panniers choking with fruit from his meager garden. It was heartbreaking and our Indonesian couldn’t communicate our gratitude, so we just smiled a lot until he understood.
In Timor motorbikes often pulled up beside us, their riders question-ready and beaming. One man sat beside me on the grass as we took a break, he’d been giving me the eye. ‘Oh Meeester Stephen, I so glad I meet you, you’re so handsome!’ he piped up, his head lolling coquettishly to one side. Every so often he giggled and chirped ‘Oh Meester Stephen!’ as if I’d told the funniest joke he’d heard in years. He referred to Claire as ‘Meester Stephen wife’ a moniker which, to her chagrin, has stuck – I use it every time I need her attention, enjoying the implied sense of ownership and theft of her individualism. There was talk before of the possibility of Claire getting harassed by leering romantics in some countries, so we decided to pretend we are married, we didn’t foresee though my meteoric rise to gay icon-hood in Indonesia and I think Claire’s secretly a tinge jealous she hasn’t been wolf whistled as much as I have.
Here’s how it works on Indonesian roads: A vehicle pulls level, perhaps a car, most likely a motorbike. Multiply the wheel number by two and you have roughly the number of occupants, unless it’s a bus, then square it seven times and add infinity. The driver will drill me with an undeviating gaze, oblivious does not begin to describe it, for him the known universe has just vanished. He is like a shark in a shoal of mackerel, scattering horn-sounding oncoming traffic to ditches and crash barriers. After a dragging infinitude, amid the screams of maimed motorists and police sirens, the driver will summon the courage to ask ‘Hello Meester. What is your hobby?’ Indonesian drivers are ambidextrous lane users who rarely resort to trifling things like binocular vision, still, they are genuinely better than Australians, which really does say something.
Ahhhh Indonesian food. Cheap and gratifyingly ambiguous if not always wholesome. Warungs are local haunts where the food is served, and it’s best not to think about the bound slavering dogs that can be seen on the back of Indonesian motorbikes en route to some local restaurant. Coffee comes with enough sugar not just to make diabetes completely unavoidable but to actually caramelise your circulating blood volume. We went economy class for the boat to island number two, Flores, and for our thriftiness we received a fish head and a sprinkle of rice for dinner. Cockroaches and chickens had the run of our shared living quarters and when we returned from sallies to the toilets we had tales of stomach churning adventure. We shared with about 70 men who were stretched out on black mattresses amid botanical garden humidity and hanging body odour. Because this is Indonesia our 70 cohabitants were also 70 rampant chain smokers puffing their way to emphysema by our next dock, some were almost certainly going to be photographed posthumously for government anti-smoking campaigns. Our floating dorm mates had other traits in common too – they all owned mobile phones with the capacity to play bass-less music and had strikingly bad musical sensibilities, evidenced by the frequency with which ‘you raise me up’ by Westlife drifted through the cabin like the unwelcome smells. They were also all very enthusiastic amateur photographers whose preferred subject matter was white people attempting sleep. They too were karaoke enthusiasts, hawkers, stand-up comedians, wide eyed voyeurs, incessant hecklers, greeny-hacking experts and English language students who would from time to time shake one of us awake and ask ‘Hello meester. What is your hobby?’
We arrived in Ende, the largest city on the mountain-crowded island of Flores, and after gleaning route advice from another intrepid long-term biker, the wise and dreadlocked Jonno of ‘Homeless But Not Hopeless’ renown, we decided to visit the venerated lakes at Kelimutu. We left our bikes in Ende for the detour and so on the way I was endowed with a wind-blasted panoramic view because I was about about two foot taller than the child who drove the Indonesian motorbike taxi. We dodged slumbering dogs, up, past the infinity pools of flooded rice paddies, up some more, into a world of tree ferns. We both later confided that our thoughts had at times veered towards craniotomies and neurological rehab. We jumped off the motorbikes and our drivers headed off, presumably for warm milk, cookies and bedtime stories, and we trekked up to the three lakes – one a bottle green, another black watered and red rimmed and the third a kind of turquoise that ordinarily belongs only to exotic butterflies viewed after a hit of LSD.
Leaving Ende we cycled past a statue of two extended fingers, the international symbol of peace or victory, or at least that’s what those who arrive to the town get, when you leave you get the more unwelcome reverse, perhaps whoever commissioned the statue hadn’t thought of that, but I like to think they had. Rain fell, big, sopping drops of it, making the road ahead steam. Black beaches were laid out below us, and the coastal road was crumbling slowly into the surf. Villages were a jumble of palm thatched huts and heaps of coconut husks where raggedy children played and the balmy smell of humanity loitered. Dogs harangued us. Women collected blue-green stones on the beach and carried them on their heads. ‘MEESTER!’ – the chant ambushed us everywhere, firing in from the road’s mysterious margins like darts from blow pipes. Sudden cones of volcanoes appeared through billowing cloud. Tribes of children ran at our wheels, all eyes, giggling into their hands. Buses swept past, honking, arms flailing, music pounding, giddy screams. Indonesia never lost its heady pace.
Indonesians love music, they love it marginally more than sugar, football and hair-gel and less than unfettered noise masquerading as music, which is the national obsession. Indonesian buses, or bemos, zipped past on our way into West Timor’s main city, Kupang, hecklers hanging out of the bass rattling doors, their rear windows decorated with an image of a local hero – sometimes pop sensation Avril Lavigne, sometimes Harry Potter, sometimes Jesus Christ. I wonder if these celebs ever share other territory here, Harry Potter on stained glass perhaps, sexy miniatures of Avril Lavigne next to Buddha and Ganesha at roadside shrines.
On the roads motorbikes back fired and smoke billowed from burning litter, both added a flavor of ‘war zone’ to our surroundings. Occasionally a great cavalcade of big polished cars sped past us, led by siren sounding police cars. The occupants I imagined to be some important visiting foreign dignitary, perhaps the third uncle of the former vice attaché to Mali.
One night we stayed in a convent and visited the nearby school, led by Sister Selfie and Father Fluffy, and I promise those names are genuine. Last year a section of the sea front school collapsed into the lapping waves. Most of the kids we were told are just lucky to be in high school, they won’t go on to university or city jobs, most likely they’ll be stone pickers like the bent and languid old people we saw as we arrived. It was a sobering thought, and whilst the ecomony is growing fast here, so is the population, and many Indonesians have the kind of obstacles I never did. I never opened textbooks to find starfish and hermit crabs. The blackboard was never obscured by driftwood. History class never got cancelled because of high tide.
|Claire and Oscar looking out of the cobweb rice paddies near Ruteng|
|Herb the chicken is the newest member of team Cycling The Six|
After four nights rough camping or sleeping in villages we choose a cheap hostel to spend the night. The next day we left our room to have breakfast which was served on the same floor, about ten metres away, and so we didn’t think to lock the room, and yes, that does make us giant shamefaced douchebags. After about twenty minutes we realised someone had been in our room, rummaged through our bags and snatched a couple of million rupees (about 150 dollars). The usual emotions ploughed in – anger, disappointment in humankind, and a not insignificant amount of self-blame. We called on the hotel manager who had a single agenda, and it wasn’t sleuthing or sympathy. He wanted just to communicate how far from responsible his hotel was for our problem. Light years, apparently. I set off for the police station.
I explained the situation to gathered officers and spent the next half an hour repeating bits of the statement and agreeing with them when they reminded me that doors have locks and that locks stop bad people stealing your shit and that I’m a bit of a twat for letting this happen. Whilst I waited for something else to occur, perhaps a police report, though the prospect looked remote, one officer staring glumly at a ream of papers said to me ‘Ohhh, it’s terrible. It really is. Do people die like this in your country?’ He handed me a real life crime scene photo of a very dead, mutilated man, his face barely recognizable as a face. Before I could laugh insanely or puke, it may have been either, six armed police men tore through the station, jumped into a van and set out for our hostel.
Meanwhile back in Hotel Rima Claire was busy penning a letter for the insurance company whilst the hotel owner peered over her shoulder and cajoled her into changing the story: ‘Can’t you just say you lost the money on a plane?’ Then the agitated squadron and heavy artillery arrived to photograph the crime scene. Claire was ferried to the police station where together we gave a statement. On recording our details Claire was awarded an extra decade in age. They asked all kinds of pertinent questions like ‘religion?’ and ‘how many children do you have?’ to which we answered ‘none’. There was a brief silence followed by muttering. I filled it by asking Claire what she was planning for her 40th next May. The silence deepened. Claire asked the officer what was happening now. ‘Well, we are just wondering why you have no children’ he replied. ‘And no religion’ confirmed another. We left wondering if the report would get added to a dusty pile labelled ‘atheists’.
The dregs of Flores were starkly beautiful with rice paddies and vibrant green corn fields in every direction. Children sometimes ran behind pushing us up the hills but they soon got tired and ended up hanging on, wobbling the bikes and making it harder. Three times in Flores the road spiraled down to sea level and rose to over a vertical kilometer, the last day though – Lembor to Labuan Bajo – had some of the most protracted and brutal grades I had encountered for months, 30% on some turns. Every bend in the road revealed another tortured future of leg pain, wheezing and a torrent of sweat. I promised Claire the road would soon stop its incessant reach for the sky, but it didn’t, and we brooded. After hours of agony and small conquered targets we topped a pass and I joked a bit about Claire’s thundering promises of capitulation she’d made two hours ago. We laughed, but my jokes were premature, the road dipped and once again we were battling slopes Olympic tobogganists would wince at. Once we arrived in Labuan Bajo (which in our parlance had morphed into ‘Larry The Badger’) we were elated and swiftly laid waste to the hostel buffet as the sky purpled in the wake of a sunken sun and the silhouettes of bobbing boats scattered the harbor. The view would always have been a pearler, but we knew it was our grit and those lung-crunching twists of road behind us that made it extra special.
Thank yous – Oscar, Dave and Karen, Dave and Mary, Nahad and family, and scores of anonymous Indonesians in villages thoughout Timor and Flores who took care of us, hopefully the pleasure was reciprocal. Next up: Komodo, Lombok, Bali and Java, and a blog post from Jakarta.
Claire has recently interviewed several local artists and musicians in East Timor – part of her project to explore world music and its creators – here’s her piece.