By Brianna 24/April/17 Timor-Leste
On an island where favours carry more monetary value amongst locals than legal tender, the solitary police officer's hardest task is staying awake on duty in the face of the blazing midday sun and that being late for school is as much a problem for the teachers as it is for kids, it wasn't too difficult to forget the rest of the world exists...
On Atauro Island, when the mayor offers the local peace corps volunteer and his new malae ('foreign') friends (us) a lift to the beach in his pick-up truck, you accept, no questions. He's a busy man; when he's not off settling village disputes, he's spending time with his family, including his adorable newly adopted son, who joined the family after his widowed mother re-married, unable to take her "baggage" with her into her new life. We had been on the island around two hours but we already felt much further away from up-and-coming cosmopolitan Dili, a 3 hour public ferry ride away. It's easy to think that, when such a large proportion of local residents have never even stepped foot on the mainland.
Vincent (our peace corps friend) gave us our first taste of snorkelling that afternoon, laughing at us oogling the ginormous sea urchins and chocolate chip starfish because, well, they decorate every beach on Atauro. From that moment, we were hooked by the rainbow reefs and the gorgeous fish that darted about them, so we decided the next day to walk across the heart of the island and explore what the waters had to offer over there. The journey did not disappoint, and we spent the next day surrounded by inquisitive fish of every shape and colour imaginable, right up until the sheer, vertigo inducing drop-off. Up close and personal with real-life Finding Nemo. Proud of our successful hike and swim, we walked back inland until we came across a boy and his machine-gun yielding brother.
"Is that a real gun?" Was Cheddar's way of politely and tactfully striking up conversation.
"Yes mister, real gun."
He was out shooting birds, because that's what you do on Palm Sunday. We saw many people process in their Sunday best, palm in hand that morning, heading towards the already-bursting-at-the-seams church in our village. We saw a lot of young boys hanging behind looking uncomfortable in the shirts their mums had made them wear. We only saw one person with a machine gun. We chatted for a bit about what we were doing on a remote path to a remote village and our new mate told us about his relatives in English-speaking countries (a popular local-tourist conversation point in Timor Leste), before parting ways. We were very glad to have met the man behind the gun before hearing the shots.
A lot of places in Timor Leste, in particular budget accommodation, don't have a clear idea of what they are yet. There's plenty of NGO assisted schemes and ambitious local entrepreneurs, but there's still a lot of confusion over foreign expectations of tourism, which makes for some interesting stays. Our Atauro accommodation was founded by an Italian priest to help support the single women of the community who had suffered from tragic unfortunate circumstances and were in need of income. Nowadays, 'Mano Koko Rek', named after the calls of the resident suicidal cockerel that thinks daybreak starts at 4am and lasts at least 4 hours, have Vincent to provide some business support. There is also a local, Europe trained volunteer chef to provide lessons on utilising local ingredients. Us and Vincent were more than happy to be taste-testers for these cooking classes in the evening and sampled many Timorese delights. The seaweed salad may be a little bit too organic for some people, but the seafood pizza Cheddar helped prepare was delicious.
To get back to Dili from Atauro we thought we had 2 options: wait another few days to fight for a place on the weekly public ferry, or pay the extortionate $45 for the private 'foreigner only' boat run by one of the hotels. Vincent enlightened us to a third: hitch a ride with the other villagers in the 2:30am fishing boats. To Alex and I, this sounded a magical. Cheddar, however, tried to dampen our imaginations by raising the question "what if it rains?". To which Alex, all-round nerd and future PHD student, responded with these wise words:
'It never rains over the sea.'
He said it with such conviction that even Cheddar with all his ship-frequenting wanted to believe him.
He was wrong.
On a sliding scale of wrong-ness, this statement tended towards Trump supporters and the time I miss-navigated us into a snow-covered swamp in Kyrgyzstan.
It did start off as a magical experience - lying back on the bamboo decking inches from the glassy waters, looking up at the full moon. This didn't last long. We had barely stopped hugging the coast when they skies opened and we were ushered under a large piece of leaky tarpaulin with the other few passengers. Lying in the dark, we clung to each other, trying to keep as far from the very narrow sides as we could while I wondered whether our chances for survival would have been higher had we kept the snorkels to hand.
From somewhere inside the tarp Alex muffled; "Remember that Irish girl who worked at our hostel in Darwin saying 'Ooh that's going to a bit of an adventure' when we suggested getting the public bus to airport instead of the shuttle?". We both had a fit of hysterics, delirious with the ridiculousness of our situation. We arrived moist, exhausted and in much better spirits just in time for dawn to break over Dili. Atauro is as laid back as they come, but it's also very raw, leaving room for new discoveries and adventures at every turn. We had a memorable few nights there and a day of rest afterwards to recover from them. Safe to say we were enjoying being back on our overland mission to the full, exited to find out what the next 5 months would have to offer.
Until then, friends, we continue west!