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A Traveller's Tale - part 6

3rd March 2009

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What a month. I expected to be in and out of East Timor within a day. Fly in, pick up Dot Cotton and get the hell out of there before someone used a machete to open up my coconut. Except it didn't work like that.

From putting Dot on the boat in Darwin to her arriving in the East Timorese capital of Dili would take 6 days. In an ideal world I would have waited on Priscilla's pink bus and flown in to East Timor at the very last minute. Only I couldn't do that because my Aussie visa was up. I had no choice but to wait in the warzone.

When I landed at the airport I was petrified. I had laptops and cameras swinging off both shoulders which meant the minute I hit the arrivals lounge I was given the willies by all the taxi touts grinning and jeering for me to get in their passenger door. I sat for five minutes, swatting them off like flies while I tried to fathom what the fuck I was doing here. Sydney to London on a moped. That was it.

Finally an Aussie lady called Jill rescued me from my nightmare and took to the town's only backpacker joint. The Dili Smokehouse was on the main street into town, past the caged chickens and wooden shacks, beyond the grotty food stalls and teenagers sat on kerbsides earning a living selling sim cards and just around the corner from the dock where Dot would finally arrive by boat.

The hostel was guarded by barb-wire and a huge padlocked gate. It was a fortress. At reception a tiny local lady called Rita showed me to an eight bed dorm decorated by decay and painted a putrid pink. Welcome to hell I thought as I abandoned my bags and went out to meet the hostels other guests. David, a old walrus-looking Australian full of bullshit, Eddy, a shaking Irishman part-pickled by all the alcohol he'd sank while working at sea, Matthew, a beard-scratching yank doing research on local tribes and Ian, a backpacker from Manchester with a big shabby head of hair and a simpleness that suggested he was stupid but when you spoke to him he clearly wasn't.

In the afternoon David and Eddy took me to the Indonesia embassy to arrange a tourist visa. The man on the counter said I wouldn't be able to take a bike into his county. I panicked and said 'no sweat.' What I really meant was 'yeah we'll see about that buddy.' Later, armed with a penknife, I finally plucked up the courage to fly solo out of the hostel's front gate. What greeted me was chaos; just hectic, traffic flowing, horn-beeping, men-shouting, chaos. I clung to the shadows and the reassurance of the UN vehicles streaming past and wandered. First along the waterfront where dirty wooden drink stalls were watched over by men whose job it was to sit in the sun and sell Coke, and then into town where the fire-bombed buildings and piles of rubble hint at the destruction that's been caused by the various invaders over in the town's past.

The Portuguese were the first in the 1500s. Then, when they pulled out in 1974, the Indonesians, who over the course of the next 25 years killed a quarter of the one million population. It'd be nice to be neutral, but it does sound like the Indonesians were nasty bastards, just wanting East Timor for the sake of it. Australia stood by and watched, so did the rest of the world, then, in 1999 a new Indonesian prime minister came to power and offered the people of East Timor a referendum on their independence. Marvelous, or so it seemed. To make sure they voted the other way - to stay part of Indonesia - the Indonesians sponsored militia tried to rape, butcher and brake the spirit of the voters. They failed and in 1999 East Timor won its independence.

Indonesia was extremely pissed off by this and murdered a few more thousand and ransacked the place before the UN finally stepped in and said sod off. In the years since there's been trouble, both in 2002 and 2006. Everyone seems to have a different explanation for why, but my take on it is that the army was by now full soldiers from both sides - the pro-independent and pro-Indonesian. They didn't like each other very much and instead of sitting down and talking about it they shot each other.

Now though the city's calm, and the more I walked around it's ruined walls the more I realised that someone's been having us on. "Continual threat of tension and violence," say our Government on its travel advisory website. "Don't go," they conclude. And it's bullshit. People look and wonder what you're doing; they're curious, but they don't bother you and when they do it's only to sell you a shonky tourist cap or a bunch of bananas. But it's expensive here, much more so than the rest of Asia. The hostel is $10 a night, a meal $5, an hour on the internet $6 and a lady this evening tried to scam me $2 for a tomato. No way lady.

But here's a nation battered and bruised, on its arse only two years ago and now, with a bit of international scaffolding, back on the mend. What a great time to see it, before the tourists and sozzled backpackers arrive and turn it into another Costa Dell Vomito. The only thing that gets you now are the UN vehicles buzzing around with their sirens on. There must be hundreds of them, all bright-white four-wheel drivers going somewhere, doing something. But what that is nobody really knows. They pull out next year so we'll see what happens. Probably the expensive restaurants will make less money and Toyota will do less trade but other than that you can't see the place going belly-up.

But enough of those arseholes, because the country's stunning. The other day a few of the guys from the hostel hired scooters for an adventure to Bacau, the country's second city up the coast. Dot Cotton had finally arrived and after much palaver at the dock we blazed a trail out of Dili where the scenery was like nothing I'd seen before. Epic coastal roads with not another soul insight, then across low-lying scrub and on to dry dusty plains that reminded us all of Africa. Then finally, just before Bacau, lush tropical rainforest with all these gorgeous wooden shacks kept dry under big flapping green leaves.

But that's no bad thing because my man boobs are back from all the rice and noodles and I really need to get back in the saddle and ride if I'm not to break Dot Cotton's back. All I'm waiting for is a package from my parents. Understandably worried about their son astride a moped in the middle of nowhere, they've bought and posted a GPS tracker. The only thing is the post office here can't track the tracker, so while they look I can do nothing but wait… and wait… and wait. And while I do that I meet more backpackers who remind me just how far out of my depth I am. They're all confident and stout chested. I on the other hand am twitchy and on-edge. If I was holding a gun I would have blasted off my own foot before I even got it out the holster. It's just that I've never been so far out of my comfort zone. And the more I realise how much further I have to ride out of it the more I think 'O bugger.'

But deep breath and chill out. It'll be fine. Once the package arrives we're just going to cross into Indonesia, hop over to Singapore, saunter up to Thailand and then dither all the way through central Asia before finally arriving on my mother's doorstep with a big bag of dirty laundry and a beard that's still not grown properly. But until that point who knows what might happen. But as long as there's fuel in the tank and tread on my Converse we'll keep on riding. All I've got to hope is they let me and Dot over the Indonesian border.

Fingers Crossed….

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