I woke up hungry in Dili that morning and could feel my energy fading as I packed up my things. Beastie was still locked up in the shipping yards, but I’d resolved to make a break for the hills as soon as she was free. Dili was too expensive for me to live there like a tourist, and the city felt too fast and too packed for me to figure out how to live like everyone else. I needed some clear air, some breathing space to process how things worked in this country. I needed to learn some basic vocabulary in Tetum, and I needed to learn how to read the world around me: what’s normal, what’s dangerous?
But none of this was going to happen until I’d eaten. If you know me in real life, you probably also know that everything goes badly very quickly once hypoglycaemia sets in. There will be anger, confusion, tears, vertigo and loss of judgement. Nobody enjoys that.
So I stepped out on the dirty Dili street – already hot and humid in the early morning – and trudged towards a more crowded part of town where I thought I might find cheap food. My hostel was on Avenida de Portugal, which is perhaps the grandest road in Dili: on one side, the beach, on the other side, fortified consulates and embassies. The street itself was a minefield of uncapped manholes and rubbish-filled drains but compared to the rest of town, it was high society. It was malae territory – foreigner territory – and a terrible place to get cheap food.
So I walked down the long Avenida, past the obscenely green, manicured playing field locked behind the gates of the US consulate, past the surprised road workers who all said good morning to me in Tetum – bom dia – with varying degrees of surprise and friendliness. White girls don’t usually walk down the street in Dili on their own, and when they do, they don’t often do it in knee-high moto boots. I got a few catcalls from passing trucks, but so far no-one had dared to be sleazy within my reach.
I got down to the end of the road, where it twisted away from the beach and into smaller streets and alleys. There were a few stands selling packaged consumer goods – biscuits and sachets of drink mix, washing powder, shampoo and pretty much anything else you might need as long as it can be sold in a sachet – but I couldn’t see anywhere that obviously sold cooked food. It might sound a little strange, but you have to know what to look for: what does a cafe, a warung, a drinks stand, a restaurant look like in this country? Within a couple of days, you’ll have assimilated all the visual clues to help you find what you’re looking for, but at first it can tricky telling the difference between a restaurant and a cigarette shack.
It’s hard to look like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing when you don’t, and I was soon spied by an enterprising young man.
‘Hello! Where are you going! Hello! Hello! Where are you going!’
At first, it’s always hard to know the difference between a new friend and a hustler. I’m always wary, but I also refuse to assume the worst of everyone who’s not like me. I prefer to wait and see.
Also, sometimes a hustler and a new friend are the same person.
So I stopped and talked. My new friend wanted to pratice his English, wanted to know where I was going. I was starving by this stage, so I told him I was looking for coffee and cheap food, did he know a place? For sure he did. Cheap, I said, it needs to be cheap – I may be malae but I’m not rich. If he had hopes of an expensive restaurant hustle, I was keen to alay them now.
In the end, we got on his scooter for a ride of all of forty meters – but I still wouldn’t have found the place on my own. It was a really nice cafe and restaurant, tucked away from the traffic behind a wall; clearly an expensive place at night where you drop a lot of dosh on bottles of Portugese wine, but this morning I had some breakfast and bought coffee to share for about $4.
There, my new acquaintance patiently took out pen and paper and started teaching me the Timorese language, Tetum. It’s a combination of local dialects with a heavy Portuguese influence, and I reckon it’s quite hard. After an hour or so, I had a few words to help me get by: please, thank you, where are you going, where are you from, I would like to eat, one, two, three, four, five…..
This was absolute gold to me: that afternoon I would be heading out of Dili, into parts of Timor where no English was spoken by anyone. I would need help and information and supplies and somewhere safe to sleep every night, and although sign language is effective, nothing can replace being able to show your gratitude properly in the language of the land in which you are a guest.
So I bought this enterprising young man a cup of coffee and he gave me the Tetum words I needed to get by. Like many of the young Timorese men I would meet, he had a job but he said he didn’t have to go it right now. He helped me negotiate a locally-priced taxi fare out to the shipping yard where my bike awaited, and I was back on track to retrieve Beastie.
* * *
Back at the shipping yard, the man with the key had been found. There was Beastie, liberated from her shipping container, waiting for me with panniers loaded. I felt my heart jump.
My baby! Intact and just the same as I’d last seen her. There was my home, packed up and ready to travel just like on all those clear, sunny mornings in central Australia.Except this time, we were in a strange and foreign place, and we were on our own.
This kind of feeling is useful if you don’t dwell on it too long: take the excitement, take the adrenaline, and get moving before the terror and self-doubt can catch up with you.
I reconnected my battery terminals with three or four blokes from the yards looking on. They liked my spotlights; they thought my motorbike was ridiculously huge; I was a good sideshow in their working day.
I held my breath as I turned the key: ignition on, instruments light up. The sound of the fuel pump priming was music to my ears. I hit the start button, and she leapt into life.
My heart was filled with love.
I gave my audience a quick wave and rode out of the yard. Now Grace, I told myself, just try not to die.
* * *
Sitting in the rattling taxi on the way to the shipping yard, I’d looked at the traffic with dread.
In order to turn right across a dual carriageway, vehicles would simply nose out into the oncoming traffic until an eddy emerged; traffic would usually travel on the left, unless that was inconsistent with getting to your destination in the most convenient way possible; people would often stop at red lights if the light had been red for sometime already. These were the main rules, and the rest was a free for all.
On the bike now, I watched with apprehension for a moment, then gently let the clutch out and pulled into the stream. Immediately, I felt good. I felt safe, I felt relaxed, I felt at home. The traffic was flowing around me; there was a system, and it was a completely organic one. There was no issue of right-of-way, no question of whether you should be able to drive in a certain space or at a certain speed: it was all merely a question of what was practically possible. If it was possible to drive in a certain space without coming into contact with other objects, then one did it. And if not, you moved into a different space. Nobody has insurance, nobody wants to have an accident, nobody cares who was there was first. There is no road rage.
From a motorcyclist’s perspective, it felt much safer than commuting to work in the Sydney CBD on any given morning.
I fueled up and headed out of Dili. By this time, it was midday: sweltering at the tail-end of the dry season, there was barely anyone on the road. Everyone with any sense was taking a siesta; it was just me, in head-to-toe moto gear, riding in the midday sun.
I was making for Baucau, a town further east along Timor’s north coast. Soon I was cruising past the port, past the turnoff to the Cristo Rei; I got to the edge of the city.
The road was closed.