Saturday, August 19, 2017

And now for somewhere completely different...

Earlier this year, when seeking to unshackle myself from political and economic analyses, I filled this space with potted descriptions of places where one could escape the madding world. Curiously, none of my columns has ever elicited such a flood of uniformly positive comments as that one did.

Those responses almost certainly owed less to my compositional prowess than to people’s hankering to break free and head off on the road less travelled.

Not only does it make all the difference, but it is tremendously liberating to find yourself in a place unlike any you have previously experienced.

So, please indulge me, because I am about to tell you about such a place: East Timor.

In May, after flying to Bali for the 70th birthday of a fellow journalist, I had an urge to explore somewhere else nearby, rather than going straight back home.

When my eye caught on the two daily flights from Denpasar to Dili, East Timor’s capital, I did not hestitate, for that only breeds trepidation and concern about unpotable water and scorpions in the bathroom.

I promptly bought a ticket on the Indonesian carrier, Srijiwaja Air. I’d not heard of the airline before but it turned out to be fine, although I was bumped off the early flight and put on one two hours later for no clear reason, except perhaps because both flights were jam-packed.

But it left and arrived on time and I was seated next to Johan, the lead singer in one of Dili’s better-known bands, and I was invited to his next gig three days later. That’s how it goes when you escape.

The first task on entering Dili’s tiny terminal is to fork out US$30 for a visa on arrival. No need to change money: The American dollar is the currency of East Timor and they happily accept dirty and crumpled notes.

After exiting, I popped in the nearby Timor Plaza, a spiffy new shopping mall that would not be out of place in Singapore, and picked up a SIM card for $5. Connectivity turned out to be good, as it was for internet.

Then it was straight off along the corniche that hugs the long crescent-shaped bay and leads into the town. Dili is like a cross between a South American pueblo and a medium-sized town in Myanmar, like Pathein.

Ringed by jagged mountains and facing an opaline sea with an island on the horizon, it has a location to die for and it’s got that laidback, slightly seamy, Hispanic-cum-Asiatic flavour of somewhere that’s going to be edgy and fun to discover.

Where to stay? I decided on the centrally located Discovery Inn, which includes return airport transfer, unlimited internet usage, loads of eateries nearby – notably the renowned Kebab Club, plus its own restaurant, the Diya, which is arguably Dili’s classiest.

Aside from the splendid staff, including father-and-daughter owners, Sakib and Zeenat, resident manager Ryan, and the incomparable driver Honorio, another of the Discovery’s assets is the complimentary happy hour every evening that includes a plate of zesty tapas and two drinks.

Although East Timor is somewhat off the map, it immediately felt as if I’d been welcomed to a magical house party. I met locals and visitors alike and the conversation ranged far and wide and covered trenchant appraisals of the region’s leaders and their policies.

Next day, what to see? Dili has a list of standard sights, but I’d focus on four of them: the Cristo Rei Statue, the Resistance Museum, the Santa Cruz Cemetery, and best of all: Chega!

At the far end of the bay, the hill top Cristo Rei, a rather naff copy of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, was ironically built by Indonesia in 1996 to mark the 20th anniversary of its occupation of East Timor.

While that may leave a sour taste, it’s still nice to climb up to the statue at dusk and take in the gorgeous view of Dili and the bay and surrounding mountains.

The vast and rather garish Santa Cruz Cemetery is where Indonesian troops massacred a peaceful procession of Timorese in 1991 – an incident that galvanised the pro-independence movement.

Dili’s elegant new Resistance Museum commemorates the guerrilla war against the Indonesians, but more evocative of this victorious struggle is Chega! (Portuguese for “Stop, enough!”) – a former Guantanamo-type torture centre run by the Portuguese and later the Indonesians.

It contains some incredibly moving murals and etchings scratched into the walls by detainees and some heart-stopping “dark cells” where prisoners were essentially left to rot.

After that, light respite was needed so I cut along to La Esquina on Rua Berlamino Lobo, and ordered caldo verde soup, followed by cured ham, cheese, olives and red wine, and finished off with an espresso and an aniseed-flavoured Liquor Beirao.

Next day, it was time to venture further afield and take a minibus some 130 kilometres (81 kilometres) eastward along the coast to lovely Baucau, where a typical Portuguese pousada offers excellent rooms and meals.

It also affords access to a garden area with a large spring-fed swimming pool, and there is a steep winding road down to one of those untouched beaches that you thought were extinct.

Not this one. It reminded me of Barbados and Ngapali in years gone by. I was the only person on it and I called Bangkok to let others hear the gentle sussuration of waves breaking on the white sand.

Some things you can’t buy.