It’s an easy run from Dili to the Indonesian border, and I was there by lunch time. The road was fine, the traffic was normal; what a travesty it would be to ship into Dili and ride this road straight to Indonesia.
Signing out of Timor Leste was a relaxed affair; the border guards were pleasantly curious and they stamped my carnet as I asked. But, as usual, I’d managed to show up with paperwork at lunch time; the Timorese guys said I was free to head into No Man’s Land but that the Indonesian offices would be closed until two.
No worries; I sat in the shade and ate another two mangoes. There was an Indonesian family waiting to cross back, and I had my first experience of the great Indonesian phenomenon of “selfie dulu!” Essentially, this means that you should take as many selfies as possible with anything and anyone of possible interest; foreigners qualify per se, but so do things like traffic accidents, dead bodies and pretty landscapes. So, one of the older ladies wordless grabbed my arm while waving her smart phone, and it was on for young and old.
Timor Leste people also love a good selfie, but they usually won’t ask for a photo until they’ve gotten to know you just a bit, so it was a change of pace.
Anyway, forty selfies later, I went back to eating my mango and chatting with the border guard. He was from Suai, so we had a good time talking about the roads around there and all the places I’d been. It made me nostalgic already. I was already stamped out of Timor Leste, but I didn’t want to go.
I knew the Indonesians were back from lunch once people started emerging from No Man’s Land. Some were on scooters but there were also four bule – white people – trudging through the dust on foot.
‘Look! Look!’ said the border guard, pointing at a couple of white backpackers. ‘It’s your friends!’
I saddled up and headed through. Someone pointed me to a building off to the side, which turned out to be Customs. There were three staff, no-one waiting, and they even knew what to do with a carnet. What a breeze!
I scooted over to the immigration guys, and things slowed down a bit. First, I had to fill out an arrivals declaration. Obviously I travel with a knife, because how else is a girl supposed to peel her mangoes? And I was happy to declare it. But still, I hesitated before ticking the box that confirmed that I was carrying one, some or all of: explosives, firearms, poisons, other dangerous goods that could be used in a terrorist attack… and a fruit knife.
There were quite a few semi-automatic weapons around, after all. I sidled up to one of the imigration guys and told him that I was going to tick this box because I had a knife for cutting my fruit, but don’t freak out, okay?
Okay, all good. But now they wanted to x-ray all of my gear. All of it. If you’ve ever tried to pack your whole life on a motorbike, you’ll know that repacking said life onto said motorbike takes a labour of love and some considerable amount of time.
But, they wanted all the bags out. So I started unpacking the bike, and carrying by bags inside. Four trips, five trips… I lined up all my tools, my food, my clothes, my medicines, my underwear in their little waterproof bags on the x-ray conveyor belt… and then the electricity when out.
The border guards shrugged.
Nothing could be x-rayed now; I was free to go.
So I carried all my things outside again, and began the tetris game of repacking.
Ah well. What’s a little inconvenience when you’re an unemployed person with a motorbike and an empty road ahead of you?
I repacked and headed into Indonesia.
* * *
The main road from the border runs south-west to the largeish town of Atambua, so I turned right instead and hugged the north coast, just to see what was there. It turns out that there’s a major shipping port, and a long line of villages clustered beside the sea with tsunami evacuation signs pointing south, towards the hills that are much too far away.
My first thought was, ‘Indonesian people are so much richer than Timor Leste people’. In the villages, the houses were solid constructions: made of concrete, and painted, with proper roofs and windows. The petrol sold by the roadsides was in glass bottles here, instead of old plastic water bottles. In one of the villages, I saw a cash machine.
Woa. I suddenly realised how accustomed I’d become to the ramshackle buildings of rural Timor Leste, usually unpainted besar block or timber and daube. The people here in West Timor were by no means rich, but the upgrade in living standards was stark.
The upgrade in road conditions was disappointing. Here we had a long strip of perfectly serviceable blacktop snaking around the coast and over the hills. No crazy offroading around remnants of asphalt; no need to stand up on the pegs and pick a line. Maybe I should have downloaded a podcast.
(Ha. Some people are never happy, are they?)
And then I came over a hill, and I saw this.