What’s worse than having to get up at 5am for a bus? The bus turning up at your hotel twenty minutes early! And then beeping REALLY LOUDLY, waking everybody in the neighbourhood up. Well, possibly not, the people of Indonesia have such an amazingly high tolerance of noise, you’d swear they must be deaf. It might be an idea to ship all those whiney tossers who buy houses on the Heathrow flight path or apartments above city centre nightclubs (and then, predictably, moan about the noise) to one of these 17,000 islands and fill Britain’s noisiest homes with Indonesians.
Completely unprepared, I sleepily threw all my stuff in my bags like Winona Rider looting a Chinese laundry. I fell back asleep as soon as I clambered onboard and didn’t really wake up until we reached the border at noon – all I can tell you is that my driver drove too frickin’ fast. The next Brit who moans to me about speed cameras might well get a slap. Rogering my watch one hour forward, I got stamped out of Indonesia and marched triumphant over the border.
And thus I was in EAST TIMOR: my 50th country of this year. By jingo, this time last year I had done 124. Rubbish, Graham – must try harder. But at least I only have 17 more countries to go. Shame they are all in THE MIDDLE OF FRICKIN’ NOWHERE.
The trip to from the border to Dili was uneventful, but spectacular. These windy little roads would be so awesome… if I was driving. Getting thrown about in the back of a minibus isn’t much fun and makes it impossible to read or write – you just end up thrusting your headphones into your lugholes and staring out of the window, dreaming up amazing stories which would make great films. Or TV shows. Or stageplays. Or books. Or musicals.
Once this mad trip is over, I’m probably going to disappear off into the outback for a few months with just Mandy, my laptop and a pirate copy of Final Draft.
Arriving in Dili at sunset, I was greeted by Dan, the owner of the East Timor Backpackers. He had been expecting me since John (who I met on the Batam to Jakarta ferry last month) had arrived and told him what I was up to. I was exactly two weeks later than I really should have been. I’m really kicking myself now for procrastinating in Bali – this bungee jump thing in Liverpool had better happen!!
Dan’s a great chap, he’s from Chorley in Lancashire (not far from my neck of the woods) and travelled all over the world before taking on the only Backpackers in Dili last year. Nice place: bit pricey, but then so is all of East Timor. They use the US dollar, so conversion is easy (and great for holidaying Aussies at the moment: the Oz/US exchange rate is 1 to 1). Anyway, it was $12 a night for a dorm room, which is comparable with hostels in Europe. But for that you got the use of western toilets and hot showers, so it was more worth it than, say, Comoros or Angola.
The reason for the inflated prices is clear as soon as you step out on the street: the UN are here. And when I say here, I mean WOW THEY ARE HERE. I’ve seen more white UN trucks floating around Dili than I saw in Kinshasa, Monrovia and Freetown put together. I’m not sure they really need such a massive presence here – yes, East Timor is a very young nation and there has been some political instability in the last few years (culminating in 2008 with an assassination attempt on the Noble-Peace Prize winning President – luckily, he survived), but it smacks of overkill – I guess compared with Kabul or Baghdad this is a quite a cushy posting. I just wish that this amount of equipment and manpower was being put to better use: Somalia, anyone?
Actually, can I get serious for a moment? Somalia has not had an effective government for 19 years now. The levels of lawlessness and barbarity are as sickening as they are unreported.
A crowd of teenage boys gang rape, beat and dismember a young woman in Mogadishu in broad daylight. What happens to them? There are no police officers, no jails, no courtrooms, no judges. I’ll tell you what happens to them: nothing.
A gang of Somali pirates hijack a charity ship carrying medical supplies to some of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa. By the time the Royal Navy recapture the ship (or the insurance company has paid the ransom) it’s too late: most of the supplies have gone past their use by date. Thousands of people will die as a result. The pirates, even caught red handed, have their weapons taken from them and are free to go. Why? Cos there’s is no Somali Navy (well, there is, but it doesn’t have any ships), Kenya and Tanzania can’t afford to take them, neither can Yemen. The Royal Navy can’t keep them in the brig for the duration of their tour nor take them back to Britain.
A nine-year old girl has her vagina painfully mutilated by her uncle. While she is held down by her mother, he slices off her labia and her clitoris with a septic blade, and then, his hands covered in blood, he takes a needle and thread and stitches her up, leaving just a small hole to allow menstruation. It sounds like something from American Psycho, but the numbing fact is that this has happened to 99% of women in Somalia. It’s not even frowned upon. This most inhumane of acts is part of their culture. When a culture is that f–ked up, it ceases to be culture and becomes institutionalised criminality. By the same token, could we argue that it is the ‘culture’ of the Catholic Church to rape children?
Team America has seriously f–ked up in Afghanistan and Iraq, so any intervention from them is out of the question. No other nation state really cares about daft military adventurism – their politicians are too busy trying to win the next election, and I’m sorry to say that helping out the less fortune members of our species is something that is frowned upon, not just by the right who don’t want to have to pay for it (more yachts and pies to shove into their fat faces), but even by the left who seem, in the last few years, to have sacrificed their morality on the altar of cultural relativism and a misguided sense of ‘respect’.
There is nothing respectable about what is going on in Somalia. If you have a shred of feeling for your fellow humans, you’ll agree that this unnecessary suffering - suffering on a vast scale – must be stopped. The Somali government can’t stop it, the AU won’t, the Arab league couldn’t give a monkeys, NATO is too tied up in other business and the EU was to lazy to stop genocide on its doorstep in Bosnia and Kosovo, what makes you think it’s going to do anything for some impoverished nation full of religious nutcases?
The depressing but salient truth is that Somalia’s ONLY hope is the UN. Isn’t that sad?
Because we all know that the UN is about as much use as a KFC on the moon.
The ONLY way out of this mess is if a massive UN force is invited into Somalia by the Somali government (whose jurisdiction currently expends to Mogadishu Airport and Seaport. That’s it), and operates as Somalia’s army and police force, in a spirit of transparency and accountability (I would embed independent journalists, reps from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty with the soldiers) that was horribly missing from the Iraqi Disaster. They would have to implement a clear and precise twenty-five year plan to turn around the world’s most failed of failed states.
And anyone who allows human rights abuses, crimes against humanity or genocide happen on their watch GETS THROWN IN JAIL. Something that should have damn well happened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur and Rwanda, to name a few. Listen you twat in the blue helmet, you’re not here to observe, you’re here to keep the peace. And if that means shooting the crazed maniac with a machete before he butchers a baby to death SO BE IT.
I firmly believe that the UN troops that stood by and watched the last few genocides happen and did nothing about it are just as morally culpable as the Israeli troops that allowed the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps happen in Beirut in the 80s.
In the meantime: we need UN prison ships, set up with the blessing of the Somali government and floating in international waters. I’m serious. Catch the pirates, they get a fair trial onboard a UN prison ship and are sentenced, contained and not free to go pirating again.
Or we can ignore the problem and hope it goes away, change the channel and watch X-Factor instead. I mean, Somalia is a long way away from here isn’t it?
I hear they just caught a 19 year old Somali boy attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting event in the USA. Failed states affect us all. It’s time we stopped feathering our nests for the fictional ‘next life’ and deal with the real issues are impeding people’s well-being in this one. Nobody deserves to be born into a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Nobody.
I’m going off on one here because I just read Dr. Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape and it’s made me very angry about the moral bankruptcy of our national and international institutions. Read the book, it’s very good.
Today’s adventures centre around my efforts to get a new Indonesian visa.
Indonesia, being a bit of an awkward sod, only allows you to pick up visas at certain border crossings, and the one from East Timor ain’t one of them. So in order to get on with the next stage of the journey – overland and overseas to West Papua – I need to totter off to the Indonesian Embassy here in Dili, fill out MORE BLOODY VISA FORMS and wait a few days for my application to be approved. Ho Hum.
So I get to the Indonesian Embassy bright and early. I took a visa form and was very careful to fill it out in BLACK INK (blue ink is NOT allowed – they take this very seriously) and then handed it over with a passport-sized photo of my mug – you know, the same one I’ve used to get visas for over one hundred countries and I’ve used for my last two passports.
But no! Haven’t you heard? You photo needs a red background.
So it was an expensive taxi ride across town in the scorching morning sun to the photo shop. There they used my camera to take a shot of me against a bit of red card that had been gaffered to the wall (I guess other bules had gone through the same such nonsense). The guys photoshop skills were sadly lacking, so I had to step in and crop my own photo. Soon enough I had a A5 printout of about twenty little pics of yours truly against the damn red background, nineteen of which would be COMPLETELY USELESS as every other embassy in the world demands a WHITE background.
As my History and Politics teacher once said to me: Don’t try to be different lad, you’re not smart enough to be different.*
This process took the best part of the morning and by the time I got back to the embassy it was nearly lunchtime. I handed in my form (in BLACK ink) and my photo (with the RED background).
Are you living in Dili?
No, I’m a tourist.
Oh, sorry – you have to write a letter.
Yes. A letter explaining why you want to come to Indonesia.
Wow, in 183 countries and 23 months of travel, this was a new one on me. Not only do you have to be on no terrorist watch-lists and not be wanted by Interpol to visit Indonesia, you have to write them a pretty letter saying how great their country is. The template they gave me to copy from was hilarious, it just kept on banging on about how great Indonesia is.
I considered writing…
I wish to come to your daft country because I’m trying to get around the world without flying and by a quirk of geography your crappy little nation (which has utterly no taste in music, food or fashion, by the way) happens to be in the way of me getting to Palau and Papua New Guinea.
PS. You smell.
But what I really wrote was…
To Whom It May Concern
I wish to visit Indonesia on holiday. I intend to travel overland to Kupang in West Timor and from there travel to Flores and visit the world famous Komodo dragons. I then wish to travel to Sulawesi and enjoy the unique culture and way of life that I’ve heard so much about.
After that I will be travelling to West Papua to visit the Raja Ampat area, which I hear is the best diving destination in the world.
I come as a tourist in peace, love and mutual respect for your people and culture.
And handed it in. The best thing about a letter is that you can’t hear the sarcastic tone.**
What a mad procedure!!
After that bureaucratic ordeal, it was time for bed. It was a real dog day afternoon and – maybe I should have said earlier, but I have a couple of REALLY NASTY insect bites on the crook of my elbow which I got a couple of days ago in Kupang. They could have been done by a spider or, given the way they are spaced out, I could make out that I was bitten by a snake. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It was a snake! A big one!! But at least I got a nice new belt. I bought some cortisone cream from the pharmacy across the way last night, but it seemed to make it worse. The skin was broken and looked necrotic and they had produced a large bruise which made moving my left arm excessively painful.
The best thing for all concerned (which was admittedly just me) would be to go to sleep and hope for some magic to occur in the dreamtime.
I woke up in the evening and had a Tiger beer with Dan. East Timor has no national brewery. Maybe that could be Dan’s next business venture.
One thing that utterly sucked about my timing in arriving in Dili was that no one but two people I knew were here last weekend and I missed them. One was a guy called Matthew Lumby who has been following my progress online and fancied meeting up for a swift half. The other was Rocco, my cameraman and comrade in arms from Ghana to Gabon last year. Rocco shares the same puerile and inappropriate sense of humour as me and we got on like a house on fire. Rocco had been working on a film over here.
Happily, though, some of Rocco’s mates were still here, and one of them, Nick, agreed to meet up for a few jars and a natter. We grabbed some food in a decent (and, more importantly, fairly cheap) Chinese joint and then headed over to the Castaway Bar on the waterfront, carefully avoiding the massive number of UN vehicles parked outside. The Castaway was teaming with UN staff. You know, once they leave, the economy here is going to crash like a drunken chauffeur in Paris being chased by the Paparazzi.
*Said by Mr. Caulfield, simultaneously the best and the worst teacher of all time, after I handed in an essay in which my written ‘a’s looked like printed ‘a’s, ie. with the tail on top. He was right, I wasn’t smart enough to be different. But that was then…
**Talking of school, I was once given a dressing-down by Mr. Ling for saying the daily assembly bible reading in a sarcastic tone of voice. True!
When I’m done with all this, I plan to turn The Odyssey Expedition into a board game. The ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards are going to renamed ‘Shipping’ and ‘Visas’. I can plan for all other eventuality, but when it comes to shipping and visas, I keep getting dealt wild cards. Take today for instance, instead of just turning up at 2pm and picking up my visa, there was a problem: I had no East Timor visa in my passport.
I roll my eyes.
YES THAT’S BECAUSE I’M AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT COME HALFWAY ACROSS THE WORLD FROM MY OWN FREE AND FAIR COUNTRY TO SEEK ASYLUM IN YOUR COUNTRY WHICH HAS NO FREE HEALTH CARE, NO WELFARE STATE AND THE FRAKKIN’ DEATH PENALTY. WOOP WOOP WOOP!!
Or I could – could – have two passports. Maybe.
Oh. We need both passports.
I didn’t read this in the small print – I thought as long as I used a black pen, wrote a nice letter and had a red background (sounds like I used to be in the communist party) things would be PEACHY.
But no. For one ugly moment I thought I’d have to spend the entire weekend here while they sorted this out, but after making me wait a mere hour, they told me to come back at 4pm. I did as commanded and LO AND BEHOLD! I was given the visa that you get immediately most land borders (for half the price!) without all this monkeying about. But they had, rather bizarrely, stapled my two passports together, so now I was the only Englishman with a bumper 96 page passport. Kinda defeats the object of having two passports in the first place, but ho-hum.
Now free to flee this burg, Dan’s girlfriend Rita booked me on the bus back to Kupang in the morning. I grabbed the two Americans who were sharing my dorm at the backpackers and we headed off into the night. It was one of East Timor’s Independence Days (I think they have three) on Sunday and things were gearing up for a big party, but, sadly, tonight there was nothing much going on.
Something that I’ve found all over Asia is that these guys aren’t big on staying up late. It’s like we hit 9pm and everyone goes home (presumably to make more Asians). In a way, it’s the polar opposite of Latin America (where it needs to be 2am before anyone even thinks about leaving the house to go out on the lash). So places like Dili, Jakarta and, yes, even Bangkok sort of fizzle out before I’m quite wherever I want to be (usually in a gutter looking up at the stars).
But as I had to be up early in the morning, an early night might be a good thing. So anyways the two yanks, Eric and Greg, and I headed over to Castaway to shoot some pool at the free pool table. I ended up teamed with the tallest Dutchman in the world and we won one and lost one. He was pretty plastered. At some time that was a little too sensible for me, the Americans headed back to the backpackers. I stayed out playing pool with the locals before being invited out to another bar that was open dead late. I remember there was an American guy from Hawaii who did actually think Obama may be a cactus and I’m fairly sure I met a least one lesbian and possibly a pirate. Although he may not have been a pirate. Maybe he was a greengrocer.
But only because Dan woke me up. Groggy and sleep deprived I clambered onto the minibus that would be speeding me back to Kupang. Bye bye Dili! The minibus ride to the border was brilliant – there were only two of us onboard so I could sit where I wanted and the seats went all the way back. I lay down and gazed at the stunning scenery whizzing by: turquoise tinted bays dotted with wooden fishing boats, islands of green rolling hills stretching off into the horizon and fluffy white clouds idly drifting by against a sky of azure blue.
The bus wound its way around the narrow S bends and switchbacks and before long we had arrived at the frontier with Indonesia. After formalities I WAS BACK in West Timor. Huzzah!
As soon as I had Indonesian phone coverage, I texted Edwin to let him know I was coming back. He let me know that the next ferry back to Flores left tomorrow at 4pm. This was good news (the next ferry didn’t leave until Friday, that would have been a bitch of a wait).
The trip from the border to Kupang wasn’t quite as good as this morning’s – they stopped to pick up loads of people along the way and then when we finally arrived in Kupang they painstakingly dropped everyone off at their houses, even if it meant driving backwards a dirt track for an hour. I got to Edwin’s around 8pm and pottered around on the internet for a bit, but by 9pm I got the feeling that Edwin wanted to go to bed (Saturdays are pretty sleepy in Kupang, let me tell you).
So I considered going for a walk around town to see if anything was ‘going down’, but instead I thought better of it and headed back to the Lavalon Backpackers and got my head down for the night.