Day 687: There Be Hobbits

18.11.10:

One of the things about living out of a backpack is that it’s so easy to forget things.  I’ve probably got about one hundred items with me, ranging from my glasses to my malaria pills to the charger for my electric razor, and first thing in the morning is the worst time for having your brain in gear.  When I think of all the things I’ve lost on this trip (my South America Lonely Planet, my little diaries, my hat) – it’s even more remarkable the things I haven’t lost.

Having said that, I do sometimes suffer from lapses in concentration that are, quite frankly, embarrassing.  One such lapse occurred today as the bus charged towards the port town of Aimere (pronounced Eye-Mere-Ay) – I left my infernal Yellow Bible in the little eatery we stopped at to get the usual BLURGH of steamed white rice and fish heads (sometime you can get chicken bones instead w00t! – just as inedible).  Maybe I was riling at the blandness (and coldness) of Indonesian cuisine.  Seriously – I was given better grub in jail – at least it was hot!

Here in Indonesia, it’s like Monty Python’s Spam sketch, only with rice.  Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner…

We’ve got rice, rice, rice, egg, beans and rice; that’s not got much rice in it…

It wouldn’t be so bad if they had the same selection of sauces they have in Chinese cuisine, but no – here any garnish will usually consist of a few green beans if you’re lucky or some cold curry powder slop if you’re not.  Weird when you consider these were the spice islands – the lands that made mad European adventurers froth at the mouth for hundreds of years.  Never underestimate the power of condiments.  Wars have been fought over condiments.

Anyway, we were too far away by the time I noticed I had lost my book for us to go back.  We had been cruising around the utterly incredible series of bends that constitute the main road of Flores (this place would make an ace episode for Top Gear) for a good couple of hours since the rest stop.

Luckily, the driver got in touch with a mate of his who was taking the afternoon minibus to Ruteng (halfway to Aimere).  If I was happy to wait in Ruteng, he could pick my book up and give it to me later.  But, by then, heaven knows how I’m going to get to Aimere: the last bus of the day would have already gone.

Was it worth hanging on for?  After my experience of trying to get through South America without a guidebook, the answer to that question was a resounding YES.  I don’t stand a chance of chance of getting to East Timor or West Papua without it.  So I hung around the town of Ruteng for a couple of hours.  Loads of schoolkids had an assignment which required them to bug Bules (pronounced boo-lays and meaning Johnny Foreigners in Indonesian) like myself to write in their exercise book that the kids speak good English.

Fighting the urge to demand payment for such duplicitous services (their English was as bad as my French) I happily signed about ten books during the afternoon, and each one I recommended for a gold star and a jellybaby.  Oh and don’t worry about halal: Flores is a Christian island.  Not that that stops the Muslim call to prayer being pumped out at some ridiculous hour of the morning.  Lucky I spent so much time in the Middle East my body has learnt to sleep right through it.

By 5pm I had my book back (hoorah!), but now a bigger problem arose like a grumpy levitation from the depths: how the hell was I going to get to Aimere?  But then, literally as my book was handed over, a people carrier sped past with a guy hanging out the window shouting ‘Aimere! Aimere!’.

A-ha!  A shared taxi?  How much?  $11?

That’d do.

It’s amazing what outrageous fortune these gods of the Bronze Age keep on bestowing upon me, especially considering I don’t believe in any of the buggers.

As I clambered onboard I mused about the fact that here I was, crossing the fabled island of the human hobbits: homo floresiensis, At just one meter tall and with brains the same size of that of a chimpanzee (tellingly our closest surviving relative), the hobbit’s remains have been dated to just 18,000 years ago – a mere blip on the evolutionary timescale of us homo sapiens.

It’s sad that Flores and Neanderthal man died out, the world could be a very different place if more people understood that homo sapiens are not quite as special or unique as they seem to think (the vast majority of people on this planet seriously believe that we, alone amongst living things, are going to magically survive their own death! Ha! Good luck with that!).

Sharing the planet with two other species of human might have given us the lesson in humility that we so desperately need (if we’re ever going to stop destroying this fine planet of ours).  But given the numerous purges, genocides, pogroms and ethnic violence perpetrated by humans against their own species, I guess our fellow hominids didn’t stand a chance.

There has been a bit of debate as to whether the ‘hobbit’ skeleton found in the Manggarai Region of Flores constituted a brand new species or whether it was just a normal human with a rare (but not unheard of) genetic deformity.  The discovery of several similar skeletons nearby has all but chucked the ‘deformity’ theory out of the window (oh, Young Earth Creationists – if only Evolution was as easy to disprove eh?), and the brain size alone signifies that these guys were most definitely not sapiens.

It’s interesting that the first homo erectus fossils were found in Java – a completely separate branch of the hominid family to the hobbits.

While I was musing such matters, would you believe what I saw…?

Bilbo's Mum!!!

Yes, I believe that to be a living hobbit.  I may be wrong, maybe she’s just a tiny old lady, or maybe the hobbits ‘died out’ due to interbreeding with us sapiens.  But I’m fairly sure people on this island (on average) are shorter than the folks on Bali…

The Little People

Nah, they’re just kids.  It’s cool that they all wave when the see a Bule like me drive past, reminds me of the good bits of West Africa.

Anyways, as night fell I was invited by the driver of my ‘travel’ (shared taxi) to play DJ.

Thank the maker!  If there is one thing that may just put you off Indonesia for life, it’s the crimes against music perpetrated by the bus and ‘bemo’ drivers here.  With sound systems set to ‘Krakatau’, they pump out the worst of the worst music you could possibly imagine: Indonesian music seemingly ripped from Japanese advertising jingles from the 70s, what I can only describe as ‘Oompah-pah Electronica’, desperately poor Indonesian hip-hop (think GLC taking themselves seriously), 80s mom rock that would make Elton John look heterosexual and the insipid drone of Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, Scorpions, and, worst of all, Akon.  How a guy who sounds like the goat-diddling lovespawn of Crazy Frog and Stephen Hawking has sold a single album blows my mind.

The biggest joke is that most of the buses here are covered in punk rock stickers – it’s pretty funny to see a bus plastered with pictures of Sid Vicious blasting out Celine Dion at ear-splitting volume.  Seriously.  Seriously.  Gay.

And who the hell sings that infernal cock-rock song about wanting to lie down in a bed of roses?  Christ when I get hold of him I’m going to pull a Mel Gibson on the nonce and bury him under a bed of roses.

As I selected Blitzkrieg Bop from my iPod, I explained that for the next two hours I would be giving these guys a crash course in the sort of music that ridiculously over-amped sound systems were invented for…

A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.

Day 688: Executive Class

19.11.10:

Last night I stayed in the grottiest pension I think I’ve ever seen.  Aimere is most definitely a one horse town as the only option was a pension down the street which (unlike the one I stayed in) had seen a lick of paint in the last few decades.  Not that that justified paying twice the price.

When I was visiting the dragons on Wednesday, I was enjoying a nice cold Coke after all that trekking in the sweltering heat of Komodo national park when I got chatting to an Italian guy called Simon who was (marvellously enough) travelling from Italy to Australia in a Fiat 500.  Just then his travel partner, Chesa, popped up and said I looked a little like that Graham guy off the telly.  Funny that, I said, because…

After introductions we realised that we would be taking the same ferry over to Timor and would probably be in Dili at the same time next week.  Emails were exchanged and now here in Aimere we met up again: they were actually staying in the same pension (not that there was really any choice).  Their car is hilarious: just enough room for two front seats and backpacks.

So they didn’t make it all the way overland, they (and their car) had to be flown from Nepal to Thailand.  Like the Oz bus, it seems that if you wanna overland it from John O’ Groats to Hobart in your Reliant Robin, you’re going to come unstuck when it comes to crossing China.  Wouldn’t be such a problem if Burma wasn’t such a basketcase, but as it is there is no option but to fly.  Of course, if you’re doing the trip by public transport it’s very possible indeed: well, at least until you get to Dili – something I’ll talk about more when I get there.

Funnily enough, Chesa and Simon, like me, couldn’t believe how good Iran was.  A note to the people of Iran: you rock!  A note to the government of Iran: you suck!

So we all clambered onboard the good ship to Kupang.  I pretended to be with Chesa and Simon so I could get on before the braying masses (nobody thought to ask how on Earth I would have fitted in the car).  I had paid $2 more for ‘executive class’ and I was bursting to see what this would mean.  In the end, it just meant more comfortable seats, but still no air conditioning and the ship was pretty unclean.

What was good though is that the executive class was pretty empty so I could (happily) lay across several seats instead of attempting to sleep sitting upright with my chin pressed against my chest.  Which is pretty dangerous, you know – it can cut off your air supply – that’s how come so many people died in the Moscow Theatre Siege.  True story.

As Chesa and Simon caught up with their blogs (they’re just getting around to blogging about Pakistan!  And you think my blogs are a bit late!!) I mooched around the ship: at the back of executive class was normal class, which I’m so glad I didn’t go for as everyone what perched on hard moulded plastic seats – the type you get in the doctor’s waiting room and the type that it’s pretty much impossible to sleep lying across without risking serious back injury (I know this from painful experience after attempting to sleep on the Grimaldi ferry from Tunisia to Italy last March).  Downstairs in the cargo hold was the hilariously named ‘zero class’, which featured entire families lying on cardboard rollmats between the cars and goods and bananas and rice and cockroaches.  I had flashbacks to last year’s nightmare trip on the Shissiwani from Dar Es Salaam to Comoros and ran back upstairs.

We left Aimere bang on schedule, but we wouldn’t be getting to Kupang in Indonesian West Timor until tomorrow.  I did some working out: if you include the few boating excursions I’ve been on during this expedition, this was my 100th boat trip: from tiny wooden canoes to massive cruise ships and pretty much everything in between.  Not bad for someone who gets woozy just thinking about the ocean.

That night I spent a good few hours sitting on the port wing of the bridge chatting to Simon about our various adventures around the world.

Ah, wanderlust: the overwhelming feeling that you should probably be somewhere else.

It that same wanderlust that led our ancestors out of Africa 50,000 years ago to as far a field as China, Australia, the Americas and Wales.  It was the desire to see over the edge of the known world that propelled the likes of Columbus, Magellan and Cook to seek out strange new lands and it was that same desire to transgress every boundary – natural or otherwise that fuelled Gagarin’s and Armstrong’s rockets into the stratosphere.

Well that and some rocket fuel, I guess.

Can’t help it, mate – gotta travel.  What are you waiting for?

Day 689: Kupanged!

20.11.10:

A sticky and uncomfortable night on the ferry was compounded by the tuck shop’s (pot noodles and skinny cans of Sprite – it’s the same all over Indonesia) decision to start playing the usual rubbish Indopop at full blast at 5am.  What is that?  In lieu of the call to prayer.  I went over and told them that if they didn’t knock it off, I wouldn’t be buying any more pot noodles.

Simon and Chesa were planning to spend the day in one of the villages surrounding Kupang.  I, on the other hand, was tasked with the job of getting my Authorisation letter for East Timor.  My first port of call was the bus company that runs minibuses direct to Dili.  They didn’t seem to care if I had authorisation or not and just wanted to sell me a ticket for tomorrow’s 6am bus.

So I headed over to the brand new East Timorese consulate that has just been built (in fact, they’re still building it!), but it wouldn’t be open until Monday.  Would it be worth risking it and heading to the border anyway?  It was only six hours away: I could be there and back within a day if necessary.

I checked into the Lavalon Backpackers (although, being run by Indonesians, they didn’t quite get the concept, so the place was something between a grotty pension and a cheapo bed and breakfast, but they had a western toilet, so my bum was happy) and then headed over the road to the Lavalon Bar which was (surprisingly) run by the same guy, Edwin.

Edwin’s a bit of a legend in Kupang, so much so he’s actually mentioned by name in the Lonely Planet.  He’s a bit nuts, but in a good way.  He told me straight out not to attempt a border run without the Authorisation letter: I’d just waste my money.  Best I wait until Monday and go to the Consulate.  This would waste another 2 days, but what’s 2 days in 700 eh?

<groan>

Brilliantly enough, Edwin’s joint had Wi-Fi, so after a little walk around town (it may be the capital of West Timor, but it’s quieter than a racist in a Nairobi gym), I settled in for the day with a bottle of Bintang and my laptop, content to watch the cooling afternoon rain lash down across the bay.  Less brilliant were the flying ants that came out at dusk: they were EVERYWHERE – crawling up my legs, in my hair, in my beer.  The rule is, in the tropics, you get an itch, you SCRATCH IT BEFORE IT BITES YOU.  Quick quick!

Day 691: The Authorisation

22.11.10:

It was a 9am showdown at the East Timor Consulate in Kupang.  Luckily for me, Simon and Chesa where there, and Chesa, being Indonesian, could explain my predicament to the lady a damn site better than I could.  I had applied for my visa authorisation FOUR WEEKS ago, and heard nothing in reply.  The lady made a phone call and said that the authorisation had been sent last month.  No it hadn’t.  I had flashbacks to when I had to explain to my mum back in 1997 yes it did matter if you spelt the email address incorrectly.

The lady said to go and wait for the email confirmation, they would resend it.  So I did.  I went back to Edwin’s joint and twiddled my thumbs, refreshing my email every now and again.  I knew that if I didn’t get the authorisation today, when I finally got to Dili, I would be spending the entire next week there waiting for my visa BACK INTO INDONESIA to come through (you can’t get one on the border).  If I got the confirmation for East Timor today, left here tomorrow morning, I could be at the Indonesian embassy for Wednesday morning, I could have my visa on Friday and be out of there on Saturday.  Otherwise I would be leaving on the following Tuesday at the earliest.

By 3pm the email hadn’t arrived.  I actually went back to the consulate.  Seriously?  WTF?  The lady made another call.  They had sent the email again.  Again it hadn’t arrived.  Okay, okay – here’s my email address, get them to send it to you, then forward it on to me, okay?

I can’t fault the lady – she was very helpful.  Her name was Jen.  She was sincerely sorry for all this nonsense.  You could tell by her demeanour that she knew she worked with morons and was doing her level best to make my life easier.  One problem: her email wasn’t working.

Will it be working before the end of the day?

Maybe.

Urgh!  I headed back to Edwin’s and kept on hitting F5.

At 4.55pm, the Authorisation arrived.

Edwin booked me on the 5am bus to Dili.  It’s high time to tick my 183rd nation off the list.

A note to anyone wanting a East Timor visa to enter the country overland: DON’T BOTHER with the online registration malarkey.  Just go to the new consulate in Kupang and get your visa there.  If you’re REALLY nice to Jen, she might even sort you out with one the same day 😉