The map showed only one main road running East along the coast, and I’d just found it completely closed by road works. Not a good start, I thought, but I was wrong. As I was soon to learn, help and a smile is never too far away in Timor.
That help is usually not in English, but this day – my first day on the road in Asia – I was in luck. Fortune had given me a soft landing into Timor. I was soon able to plot a route South instead of East, that would take me up into the hills and round the closed section of coast road.
The lady giving directions knew where I had to go, but she couldn’t tell me if I’d make it to the next real town before dark. Either way, I had a feeling it would be okay.
I backtracked through Dili and turned South. Houses, traffic and ramshackle businesses ended abruptly at the foot of the hills, and then I was twisting and turning upwards, inhaling lungful of diesel particulate as I went. Down the other side of the range, I eventually rejoined the main road.
Stretched across a low-lying plain in front of me, I saw for the first time the road works I’d been promised, but it looked nothing like the ‘terrible’ conditions I’d been told to expect. Instead, stretching before me, I saw kilometre after kilometre of widely spaced woops. Like an incredibly relaxed motocross track.
In hindsight, I think the object of the engineers must be to raise the level of the whole road, like a causeway across the floodplain. But today, only the culverts had been installed to the height of the new road; the old bitumen lay low and flat, four or five feet below the level of the glorious dirt mounds that swooped out of the bitumen and over the pipes.
I could see that the most of the traffic was having no fun at all: cars and trucks gingerly picking their paths, at an angle, across the steep mounds. Scooters and small motorbikes climbed the dirt cautiously too, small wheels lurching into and over the loose rocks.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I stood up on the pegs and opened the throttle, each time a little more. The bike felt great: smooth and balanced. No-one was more surprised than me, given that I was carrying at least 60kg of gear, but the previous owner had upgraded the rear shock to cater for his bodyweight and the now the set-up was starting to come into its own. We got some air as the afternoon went on, and never came close to bottoming out. I was stoked.
I was making little whooping noises inside my helmet.
This is why I’d quit my job and walked away from all the comforts and consolations of my old life: the pure joy of riding. Under the sun, across a landscape I’d never seen before, heading for the unknown, with the unexpected pleasure of crazy-fun roadworks, no traffic control and no apparent speed limits.
I felt golden to the tips of my fingers. Pure hedonia.
* * *
Eventually the floodplains and woops ended, and the road began to cling to the sides of cliffs, hanging over the sea. Excavators were gouging rough hollows into the sides of the hills, and it meant riding through loose rocks, deep soft dust, and waiting in the sweltering heat for the machines to move aside, again and again, for the traffic to trail its way past.
The traffic would race recklessly from blockage to blockage, overtaking madly and dangerously, only to sit with the same cars and trucks at the next blockage. It was like reshuffling cards in a deck, except the bikes had an extra incentive to get ahead each time: the dust was chokingly thick. Sometimes you couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. It was the end of the dry season and the machines were pulping the hills to talcum.
At one town, a police Hilux pulled into the string of traffic, and I found myself following it intermittently and often. In the back of the utility were four young men – maybe closer to boys – and a young woman. They weren’t restrained, and none of the police rode in the back, but it was clear that young people were being compelled to go with the police, and that it was a very bad day in their lives. The young woman had a piece of cardboard box, and every time the Hilux passed people or houses she would try to hide her face behind it, hunching over in palpable shame. I wondered what they were supposed to have done, and what the consequences would be; the boys remained hard-faced, looking out at the hills or the sea. No-one made eye contact.
* * *
The sea was a brilliant blue on my left, but the rest of the landscape was dry, thorny, barren. Buildings were mostly shack-like, constructed out of light wood – some of it milled, but much of it just thin branches rammed upright into the earth. Lots of shacks sold ‘pulsa’ – phone credit – and miscellaneous cigarettes and biscuits, but I never saw food being cooked, sold, eaten. In Manututo, the seafront was lined with open shelters filled with plastic tables and chairs, and looking for all the world like a busy food market; but there was not a soul in them, no food to be seen. Perhaps I was too early in the day.
The sun was low when the road finally snaked down into Baucau.
The old town perches on the edge of the hills, looking out to sea with looming Portuguese architecture. The cream and stone town hall, police station and convent hold onto their tall arches and red roof tiles and squint across a foreign sea. Jagged basalt outcrops squeeze the buildings, overshadow them, and prop them up. The occupying Indonesians used to call the place ‘rock town’.
I’d been given a dot on a map that was supposed to indicate the location of a cheap hotel, but there was no hotel there. I rode until I couldn’t go any further, pincered by the primary school gates and a looming stone building on a steep, dead-ended slope. The surface was uneven and I was a little dizzy with dehydration and hunger. The sweat and dust had mixed to mud on my face.
Careful, Grace, I thought. This is exactly where you’ll drop the bike if you’re not careful.
So I took a deep breath, turned off the hot engine that had worked its way up to one bar below max on the temperature gauge, and let the gears hold the bike on the side of the hill.
My head hurt. I closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, I caught a woman looking back at me as she walked a little girl out of the school gates.
I grabbed at the eye contact, seized the moment. ‘Hotel?’ I asked. ‘Is there somewhere I can stay? A guest house?’
I didn’t expect tobe understood beyond, perhaps, the world ‘hotel’. But again, I was in luck. A nun was also walking past, and she stopped and just looked at me curiously for a minute.
‘A hotel?’ She asked. ‘You want somewhere to stay?’ She was frowning.
‘Yes, please…’ I said. ‘Just somewhere cheap… anywhere… a room somewhere…’
I trailed off, because she’d stopped frowning. ‘Oh, you can stay here,’ she said, and motioned towards the imposing building behind her.
I followed her under an arch and through a narrow alleyway, emerging into a vast courtyard overlooked by imposing stone buildings. There was a fountain, a garden, and a basketball court; I was in the convent.
More nuns were summoned, including a younger woman who spoke a little more English. She explained that the convent had simple guest rooms where I could stay; fifteen USD including breakfast, coffee, drinking water. She explained the first nun had not been going to let me stay to begin with, because – geared up, covered in dust and on my big motorbike – she’d thought I was a man. Only when I’d begun speaking at length had she been satisfied that I was in fact a woman, and invited me in.
We had a giggle about that, and I went to park my motorbike in the corner of the basketball court. On the surrounding balconies, teenage girls in prim uniforms had begun to gather and spectate excitedly. Soon they came down to practice their English and help me carry my bags up to the guest room on the upper floor. The convent was also a hospitality-focused bording school for teenage girls, and they were from all parts of the country. They asked me where I was going, told me of this waterfall or that beach that I should visit when I went near to their home village.
How old are you? Are you married? Do you have brothers and sisters? Are your parents still alive? Don’t you miss your family? Aren’t you scared? These questions would become so familiar to me in the coming weeks, as I tried to explain why a white woman was wandering alone and unprotected through the jungles and tracks of Timor Leste.
Up in my room, there was no running water – just a big plastic bucket that the girls had filled by hand, carrying four litre jugs of water up three flights of stairs, two at a time, again and again. I stood on the old tiles and poured scoop after scoop of cold water over my head. It was better than the tickling sprinkle of a shower anyway; in sensation, it was closer to plunging into a pool.
My headache faded and my skin cooled. At that moment, I was sure that a cold bucket shower on a hot Timorese afternoon must surely be one of life’s greater pleasures.