The day I flew to Dili I was almost sick with excitement. Only one day into my life as a grown up person of thirty, and here I was flying into a developing country to ride my motorbike around the hills and live like a travelling hobo, indefinitely.
Brad arranged a late start at work that day so he could drive me to the airport, and I appreciated it. There’s nothing like a good hug from an envious friend to fortify the spirits for impending adventure.
And by adventure, I mean, what the hell am I getting myself into.
I was all ready to plunge myself into the unknown like you jump into a cold swimming pool – fast, with a quick shock and a little squeal – but it turns out that Darwin airport’s International Departures is way too chilled out for that. The Customs counters didn’t even open until half an hour before the flight was due to leave.
aiting at the gate, there was only a handful of passengers and the mood was positively somnolent. People barely reacted when the flight was called. The stewardesses stood at the gate and beckoned the passengers: ‘Come on, everyone, get on the plane!’
I started to calm down and go with flow. We ambled onto the aircraft. It was mostly empty. We took off, had a cup of tea, and within an hour we were watching Timor Leste emerge from the blue.
At first, it could have been any mountainous coastline at all; blueish and blurred in the distance. But once we were directly overhead, flying low over the island, I could see pale dirt tracks tracing the spines of the hills. Ramshackle buildings clung to slopes and peaks. The topography was steep and sharp-edged – geologically young – and utterly dry under the sun.
A few minutes later we were on the ground in Dili.
Down the steps, walking across the hot tarmac. I wasn’t sweating yet because I was still chilled and dry from the aircon in the plane, I knew it would be running down my face in a moment. The landscape was parched to look at but the air already felt humid and dirty in the build-up to the wet season.
Dili airport is a couple of dirty rooms, but first there’s a wooden ticket window as you walk off the runway. Push your passport and $30 US through the window, they’ll push your passport and a 30 day visa back to you without a word. Collect your bags, open them for customs inspection in a chaotic room which is filled with taxi drivers and spruikers and a bunch of other people that you kind of wish weren’t there as you expose your possessions – intimates, valuables – to the customs agents.
The customs agent was yelling at me: ‘Taxi! TAXI! YOU WANT TAXI?’ Of course I wanted a taxi. Of course the customs agents were in cahoots with the taxi drivers. Yes, I said; five dollars to hotel. Only five dollars.
This is a huge amount to pay for a taxi in Dili, but I also knew that my chances of getting away from the airport without getting stung a little were low. Traditionally new arrivals are charged $10 US, crazy money.
Yes yes, five dollars, the taxi driver agreed. He seemed a bit dodgy, but that was nothing compared to the cheerful grinding of the wheel bearings. There were Hello Kitty cushions on the back window and the top and bottom of the windscreen had been helpfully blacked out. The whole front end of the vehicle seemed to be trying to escape from the chassis every time we turned a corner. The traffic was chaotic, the streets poorly defined, the potholes magnificent. Everything was fine.
When we got to the hostel, the taxi driver refused to give me change for a twenty – the smallest US denomination on offer at the Australian money changer. The tax driver had plenty of change – I could see the notes in his top pocket – but he wouldn’t give me any. No, we agreed, five dollars, I said. No no, airport very expensive he said. We argued for a bit. Eventually he gave me $10 change. We argued a bit more. He pretended not to understand.
I was annoyed, but what could I really do. He was skinny, I could have taken him in a fight, but I had much better things to do in Dili than make a scene with a taxi driver. I chalked it up to adventure tax and let him keep his extra $5. Beastie was locked up, and I had a lot of paperwork to do.
I dropped my gear at the hostel – it was also a dive shop and had some nicer apartments, but I just got a dorm bed, grabbed my riding gear and headed out to find Beastie.
First I walked to the docks, dodging the traffic and trying not to fall into drains. Everything seemed to be made out of crumbling concrete and was either in a state of construction or destruction, perhaps both at the same time. Plastic drink bottles festooned the dirt and weeds and bobbed in pestilent-looking drainage canals. On the other side of the road, cargo ships hovered in the misty blue between sea and sky.
I was wearing my riding gear – kevlar jeans, knee high boots – because I wasn’t going to ride my bike into Dili traffic for the first time while wearing thongs. But for the moment I was pedestrian; a hot, sweaty, and rapidly dehydrating one. It wasn’t ideal.
I took a sidestreet in search of shade, but soon it twisted and turned and terminated in dusty yards with stray dogs and curious locals, despite my maps suggesting otherwise. I sweated and backtracked. On my second attempt, I found a shop keeper who had enough change for a five dollar note, and bought a can of fruit drink. I took refuge under the shade of a big fig tree in a dusty park, and felt my body temperature return to normal as the sugar perked me up.
There were quite a few young people in the park, just waiting or talking or resting in the shade. A young man approached and engaged me in conversation – where are you from, what are you doing in Dili – but I wasn’t really in the mood for idle conversation. I was hot and I wanted my motorbike. He had extraordinarily long fingernails on his right hand – beautiful strong, white natural fingernails, about 1.5cm long and elegantly rounded. I had never seen such glorious fingernails on a man. I remarked on them, and the young man laughed: ‘It’s because I don’t have anything to do!’ he said. He told me that he had a good job for an international corporation, but as I was soon to realise, having a good job in Timor Leste doesn’t actually mean that you have to do work all the time.
I kept going, and made it to the air conditioned blandness of the Telemor phone shop on the ground floor of Hotel Timor. Flash hotel, so the Telemor staff were up to speed on dealing with clueless foreigners. Within 15 minutes, I was back online and googling “customs dili”.
Cue some more wandering around seemingly deserted government buildings in the heat. The sign said Customs, but there didn’t seem to be anyone actually working there, except the security guard at the gate. He pointed me towards the customs office inside the port precinct itself: I wandered into the port, past the ornamental security checkpoint.
The customs officials pretended not to see me. Fair enough, they were on their lunch break. I sat down on a long bench in the shade. I was joined by a friendly Indonesian guy who was getting a permit to export seaweed. He invited me to stay at his house in Dili. It was nice of him, but I thought not. Two o’clock came and went. I showed the seaweed exporter photos of my motorbike. Sometime around 2.40pm a customs official emerged from his air conditioned donga and asked me what I wanted. Yes! There ensued much sign language as I tried to get them to fill in my carnet properly. I went back twice to insist they complete forgotten sections; the carnet is a difficult enough piece of paperwork if you know English or French, and the customs official knew neither. He stamped and signed where I asked, and sent me on my way.
First achievement unlocked!
Then it was time for my second attempt at taxis – this time I was all over the price, but describing the location of the obscure depot on the other side of the river to which Beastie had been consigned was considerably more difficult. The taxi driver got lost. Once we got unlost, I thought we were still lost because who expects a major freight depot to be located at the end of an alley filled with children and chickens? Well, I do now.
We got there in the end, and I found the building labelled “Administration Office”. It was completely empty. This seemed odd because I had just now been exchanging emails with a person who was ostensibly inside said administration office. Where could they be hiding?
I was still getting used to the idea that most offices in Dili seem to be hidden inside unlabeled, air conditioned dongas. Basically, you go around trying door handles until one opens. Eventually I found, the right one.
Another half hour of paperwork ensued. Finally, everything was signed off.
I clutched my helmet that I’d been carrying around all day. I was wearing kevlar jeans, knee high riding boots, armoured jacket. I was exhausted. I just wanted my motorbike.
‘Oh, the person who has the key to the container isn’t here.’
What do you mean, isn’t here…? It was only half past three. They had been expecting me that afternoon.
‘Can you come back tomorrow?’ they said.
My spirits hit the floor. I felt vulnerable and tired. I’d been drinking water all day but was still dehydrated; my headache was purple and orange and making me sleepy.
‘Oh come on,’ I protested, but there was nothing to be done. The guy with the key simply wasn’t there.
I couldn’t keep my feelings off my face. I must have looked pathetic, because soon Ruth, the administration assistant, started sweetly haranguing one of the workers in Tetum. His protests were weak.
‘Go with him,’ she said. ‘He will drop you off at your hotel.’ I immediately felt like a horrible person for complaining.
A few minutes later, we were weaving through Dili’s rush hour traffic in a little silver hatchback with Despacito playing at a deafening volume. Most of the surrounding traffic was too, just not in unison. I can’t even begin to explain how popular that song is in Timor.
Hearing Justin Beiber usually makes me feel terrible but today was an exception. I relaxed and enjoyed the vista of chaos that was Dili traffic. No worries, I thought, try again tomorrow.
I got back to my hostel and the owner, Francisco, was in the front office. ‘Did you get your bike?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘The dude with the key was AWOL; they said come back tomorrow.’
Francisco laughed. ‘You did know this would happen, right?’ he said.
I laughed too. ‘Yeah, I sorta did.’