Travels in Timor-Leste travel blog

Week 10

12 Sept – 18 Sept

We had a long weekend for a Muslim holiday, strange since the country is officially Catholic. We made it even longer and took an extra day off and a group of us headed to Jaco Island, the most eastern point of Timor-Leste. We left on Friday and our first stop was Baucau. There is a wonderful swimming pool which is spring fed. It has a high diving board and I was very keen to have a go. Sadly it closed at 4pm. We spent the night at the Cannossian Madres for $10 a night each. It is run by Sister Aurora who is from Broadmeadows! Her family fled to Australia in 1975 and she was determined to return to East Timor as a nun. She had only spoken Portuguese and learned Tetun and English in Melbourne. She is an early childhood educator and definitely a live wire. She kept us up talking til midnight.

The next day we drove through Los Paulos to Tutawala. This is an area with a sad history, where many people were killed in 1999 by the Indonesians during the fight for independence. One memorial we passed was to a group of nuns and priests who were shot and thrown into a lake for the crocodiles to finish off because they were considered enemies. This is a story that is repeated over and over again. I found a UN report written in 2003 that outlines some of the atrocities of this time. It is gruelling reading but does explain some of the animosity towards Australia, America and Indonesia.

The roads to the end of TL are appalling. I travel for hours each week on terrible roads but this time I had company and something to look forward to at the end. We stopped at a Pousada (restaurant, I think!) at the top of a cliff for coffee. The views were spectacular. As we drove up the steep road, a group of kids and their parents followed us with their necklaces and bracelets for sale. They swarmed us. We would have bought more only nothing was locally made, only cheap stuff from Indonesia. The Pousada was in the middle of nowhere so very few tourists make it up there. Timor tea and coffee is very strong and I asked for milk. The waitress brought out a tin of condensed milk on a plate with a knife the size of a machete for me to open the can. I did swing the knife around until it was taken from me by the owner who quickly opened the can.

The trip down to Valos Beach which is the setting off point for Jaco Island was worse than any of the roads I have been on yet. For 30 minutes were drove up and down roads that were little more than piles of loose rock and deep holes. No place for anything that was not a 4WD with good tyres. One of our friends was on a motorbike and managed it but it was not easy. Lakemorre Eco Guesthouse was interesting. No luxuries but clean but had mosquito nets, the usual bucket shower and food. All the essentials!

There was an eco resort next door with grass huts which looked very interesting but it had closed down. Our group of six were the only guests in our guesthouse. Tourism is not doing well here in TL. Although the island is quite close to the mainland, the currents are treacherous and there are crocodiles, so we took a fishing boat out to Jaco Island. We could see the currents but we think the crocodile story is a myth so that the fishing boats make some money. We snorkelled for two days and didn’t see one!

The island is truly a tropical paradise. The sand is very white and the coral reef starts just off the beach. Those who were a little worried about crocodiles still managed to snorkel over some wonderful coral and stay close to the beach. The more adventurous went out further and saw sharks and grouper. I was one of those who went mid-way and saw turtles and giant starfish – no sharks! It was very relaxing just swimming, snorkelling, lying in the sun and the shade and walking along a completely deserted beach. We stayed the night at the guesthouse and went back to the island for another day of snorkelling before we travelled onto Com. Another quaint little town on the ocean.

Com was once the holiday destination for the Portuguese. Now pretty much abandoned with only a few guesthouses open. There are pigs, dogs and kids everywhere. The pigs spent their time digging up the sand, the dogs roamed the main street barking at people and the kids followed us around picking up shells and trying to sell them to us. The guesthouse we stayed at was right on the beach and the owners provided a great meal – fish of course. There was a group of Portuguese teachers there and we all enjoyed dancing salsa all night.

On the way home we stopped again at Baucau to swim in the wonderful pool only to find out that the water is changed on Mondays and the enormous pool was completely empty. We ventured down to the beach but there really are crocodiles there. Three weeks earlier, one had come up the sand and attacked someone in their house which was on the beach. We didn’t go in the water but we made our driver very nervous just standing on the beach.

Our next stop was lunch just outside Manatutu. Dozens of identical huts/retaurants are lined up on each side of the main road and sell “fish on a stick” and rice in bamboo packets – takeaway food. We ate in. Total cost - $1.25 each. It was very hot and even though the restaurants are all open air, the ambience did not do it for us. Cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes whizzed past all the time. There was a wonderful beachfront, where they actually catch the fish, right behind one of the lines of huts but all of the huts faced the busy road!

We had a final stop at Dollar Beach where there are many huts and cabanas on stilts to provide shade. The tide was out and the swimming was awful. There was no sand, just rock and coral all the way. Impossible to swim or snorkel so we were very disappointed. Maybe when the tide is in it will be better.

Now I can tick Jaco Island off my list. Very hard to get to but well worth it!

After a great weekend it seemed like an ordinary week in Dili. I spent two days in the office and was able to finally get to the yoga class on Wednesday night.

I went to Natabora for three days. This time Agapito came too. I have decided that there is no point my going to this remote area without someone who can speak English. We spent two days in schools observing classes and administering literacy and numeracy tests to Grades 1 and 2.

One school we visited was two hours from the main road. We had already driven two hours to get to the turn off and the co-ordinator in this school rides a horse for hours to get anywhere. The little village was quite a surprise considering the roads we had been travelling on to get to it. The houses were very well kept, all had green grass with bouganvilleas and other colourful trees in the front yards. There were fruit trees everywhere. It was clear that this village had a lot of rain and when the wet season comes, we will not be able to get to it at all.

The school was a typical yellow brick building but with gardens and grass instead of the usual dirt and dust. There were even pot plants lined up along the outside of the walls. Most schools have only male teachers but in Bariki, three of the four teachers in the school are female. Sadly, the Grade 2 class was in a building a little way from the school. It resembled a cow shed. The floor looked as if it had been dug up and was mostly loose rock, dirt and concrete. The desks wobbled on the uneven floor.

On Saturday, I had to attend a meeting of all the co-ordinators in the area who travel for hours to reach the main school by 9am. The school was also full of children. Some were in classes but most were there to clean the rooms and garden. The gardening group was made up of mostly boys and half of them had brought their own machetes from home. I was a little disturbed to see 9 year olds expertly using machetes to trim the hedges, cut bamboo poles, slice wooden struts in half and chop things up. One little boy gave up the gardening and joined a group of boys playing soccer, wielding his machete as he raced around the rough ground.

On our way back Dili, we provided a lift for many of the co-ordinators. It took an hour to deliver several of them to various places near Natabora. Then the 4WD filled up again and we set off. I felt just like the $2 truck. Timorese people pay $2 for a ride on an open truck that takes them from one place to another. There are often about thirty people in the truck, just hanging onto the bars which go from side to side. I am yet to find out how many people we can it into a 4WD. So far the count is 9 but I am sure more could fit!

At a meeting with someone high up in the Australian embassy, I was asked how it was all going. I diplomatically said that visiting the schools was great but spending hours in a car on rough roads was not easy. She asked if I had thought about relocating to Natabora. Clearly, she has never been there! There is nothing there, no shops, no restaurants, no cars and no English. There are a few brick houses but most of the houses are really just huts with palm leaf walls. There are lots of pigs and cows just roaming around. The village has power but no internet or phone coverage. There is nothing to do at all. I would quickly go insane.

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