Timor Leste

Dili, Wednesday 16th August 2017

As I came through airport arrivals I was swamped by taxi drivers all keen to do business. “How much to the city centre?” I asked. “Ten dollars” came the replies. A friend who’d recently had the same experience had told me that I’d be able to knock that down to five. So I kept saying “five dollars, five dollars,” until one of them accepted my offer. Even so, another driver tried to carry my suitcase for me, hoping to drag me over to his taxi and to charge me seven. I resisted and loaded my gear into the boot of my chosen carriage and we set off.
Dusty streets, full of decrepit yellow taxis, motorbikes and scooters, beaten up trucks, gaudy buses and no real sign of traffic discipline. Honking horns, the bikes buzzing around and through the rest of the traffic, vehicles stopping and pulling away with no warning, all in blazing sunshine slightly fogged by the exhaust fumes. All of this said to me “Welcome to South East Asia.”
Dili is the capital of Timor Leste (or East Timor), a former Portuguese colony about six hundred kilometres north of Darwin. It was also, for a very unfortunate twenty five years, part of Indonesia before gaining its independence in 2002. I’d flown in from London, via Bali. My bike had arrived by ship from Darwin a week or so earlier. Timor Leste was to be my gateway into Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia.
The taxi took me to Dive Timor Larosse, a SCUBA diving centre which also had backpacker accommodation, pleasantly located across the road from the beach. Once checked in I met up with Elisa, a young American woman whose motorcycle travels I’d been following on Facebook (search for Travel Bug Blues to read her story). Hostels in under developed countries can be a bit so-so, and Dili was no exception. Elisa had found Dive Timor and recommended it to me. I wanted to meet her anyway so it was the obvious place to go.

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Elisa plus Suzuki DR650.

Elisa is a teacher from Seattle, is in her late twenties and is an experienced motorcycle traveller. She’s ridden in South America but recently came to Australia, bought a Suzuki DR650 and headed for Timot Leste. We were introduced by a mutual friend on Facebook and ended up using the same shipping company out of Darwin. Her plans were also to head west, into Indonesia and beyond, but she’s had to call a temporary halt. She started to suffer from severe joint pains all over her body, which laid her low and prevented any riding. The initial diagnosis was suspected Osteo Arthritis. Not unheard of in one so young but not good news. In the end she went back to Australia where blood tests revealed a vitamin B12 deficiency. Latest news is that she’s recovering well and likely to be able to continue her journey soon.
Once I’d settled in at the hostel Elisa took me down to the port to show me where to get my carnet stamped by customs. We then walked round to the offices of SDV, the shipping agent in Dili used by Bolloré, the Australian shippers. This is where things ground to a halt in a mire of ill feeling, mostly mine. It was all about the charges that SDV wanted to levy for handling the container and my bike. Elisa had also shipped with Bolloré and paid SDV $75US; the staff at Bolloré had estimated $100US; SDV wanted to charge me $245US. I was not at all happy! There’s a story here, which goes like this.
I’d taken my bike to Bolloré in early July, asking them to put it on the ship due to leave on the 29th. My plan was to have three weeks back at home then fly to Dili in time to meet it there. These scheduled sailings rarely leave on time but that wasn’t an issue. About a week before the sailing date I contacted Bolloré because I’d yet to receive an invoice for the shipping charges. I worried that they might not load my bike if I hadn’t paid. My contact there had gone on leave so I rang up his colleague who told me my bike wouldn’t be going on that sailing after all because they didn’t have enough cargo to fill a container. (Elisa’s bike had gone on an earlier ship). The next scheduled departure was on the 14th August. What to do? I’d already booked flights out to Dili, via Bali, so the options were to take those flights and wait in Dili; go as far as Bali and wait there; change my flights to suit the new sailing date. Dili is an expensive place in which to kick your heels, Bali less so. But I decided to pay the cost of changing my flights and stay at home for two extra weeks. All well and good until Luke, my contact at Bolloré, came back from leave and proudly told me my bike was going to sail on the original ship after all. So I’d wasted £270 on changing my flights, all for nothing. I was not impressed. The only upside was more time with people back at home. So that’s why I was down hearted and wound up in Dili.

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Unpacking my bike, after I’d unpacked my wallet.

The guy in the office explained to me that the container handling charges were divided between all those who had goods inside it and because there were only two of us using that container it was a 50/50 split. The cargo manifest showed that the other user had three cars and two bikes in it, I just had my bike. The injustice of this situation really angered me. He wouldn’t budge on it so in the end I told him I wasn’t going to pay that amount and stormed out. Now I’m sure you’re all aware that SDV held the whip hand in this situation. No pay, no bike. So on Friday, having complained bitterly about it all to Bolloré, I went back down there, paid the money and got the necessary paperwork to get my bike released from the bonded warehouse. I, and the guy at SDV, knew it would come to that but I wasn’t going to give in easily. Thankfully, with a new battery installed, Trixie started on the button and I rode her back to the hostel and tucked her securely away in the yard.
Meanwhile Elisa had reached a decision about how to deal with her situation. She decided to ride across into Indonesian West Timor, go to a hostel in Kepang, the capital, and see a doctor there. She left on Thursday, with my grateful thanks for her help, and a couple of days later got to her destination. After some inconclusive tests she decided to leave her bike in Kepang and fly to Sydney, where she felt she’d get better care. The doctor in Kepang was good, but testing facilities there weren’t as sophisticated as those in Australia, and she needed a solution. Now that it’s under way she’s may be back to collect her bike soon.

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Alternator stator gets replaced.

Elisa had put me in touch with an Aussie guy who managed a car hire company in Dili, name of Phil. I rang him up and he sad I would be welcome to use the workshop facilities at the car hire base. The staff there were very helpful and I spent a happy Saturday servicing the bike and replacing the failed parts, which I mentioned in the last blog post. While back in the UK I’d visited the CCM factory and the ever helpful people there had supplied the the bits I needed, most of them under warranty. Many of you will know that there’s great satisfaction to be derived from riding into a workshop on a bike that’s not working as it should, then, thanks to your own hard work and skill, riding back out with a bike functioning as it should. After my tribulations with the shipping, it was just the tonic I needed. The final note on that situation is that my strong complaints to Bolloré have elicited a promise to refund me the excess charges I suffered in Dili. Good news.
I spent the next few days making plans and looking around. I was helped in this by Kate, another hostel resident. She’s from Brighton and has been travelling through Asia for the last three years. She suggested some places to head for in both East and West Timor. She also gave me a list of Indonesian words to learn. Possibly useful in Timor Leste, definitely good to know for Indonesia and Malaysia too, as the languages for both countries are similar. On Sunday I went down to the eastern end of the bay to have a look at the Christo Rei (Christ the King) statue. This sits on top of the headland and is a modelled on Rio De Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. It is nothing like as big, neither is it, fortunately, anything like as high up. In the area around the bottom of the hill were several large groups of people, mostly young, engaged in some kind of religious performance competition. Music and karaoke, or so it seemed. A scoreboard sat on one side and the enthusiastic audience applauded the participants. This was no surprise as Timor Leste has been Catholic since priests arrived with the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, but more of that later.

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Sitting on top of the world.

As I walked up the steps, and then stairs, I passed alcoves containing bas relief carvings of the crucifixion story, with biblical quotes above them. Very uplifting, or they might have been if they hadn’t been written in Portuguese. While I walked up fit young men and women ran past me, some of them stopping to throw a few push-ups into the mix, before running on again. I was impressed but not tempted. At the top is a nice viewing platform, with great views across the bay. The bronze statue sits atop a globe and looks pretty impressive. Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the sunset, mostly because of the haze. Shame.

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Memorial to the massacred students.

Kate had told me all about the massacre of student protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, an atrocity carried out by the occupying Indonesian army. She also mentioned the Chenga! Exhibition and as they were close to each other I took a Microlet from outside the hostel round to that part of the city. Microlet’s a small mini buses, with bench seats facing each other in the back. You flag them down, jump on, then when you want to get off you just tap on the hand rail with a 25 cent coin and the driver will stop. That same coin then pays the fare, regardless of how far you’d traveled. Very cheap, very handy.

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Typical Microlet.

The student march that culminated in the massacre had begun in the city centre. As it progressed the army became more aggressive and eventually corralled them in the cemetery before opening fire on them. Over 250 were killed but the events were filmed by British cameraman Max Stahl, and witnessed by two American journalists, both of whom were beaten. The footage was smuggled out of the country to Australia then had to be smuggled out of there back to Britain. It was shown in the ITV documentary ‘In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor.’ It helped to wake the world up to events in that country. Much more info here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Cruz_massacre

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A place people should go to when they’re dead, rather than to die.

The nearby Chega! Exhibition (Chega! means Enough!) is housed in the former prison building that had been used by the Indonesians to hold political prisoners. It was refurbished, post independence, as gift from the Japanese government and was home to the CAVR, the post independence Truth and Reconciliation committee. It now houses the exhibition which tells the story of the struggle for independence after the Portuguese left and is a harrowing tale of genocidal murder across the twenty five year Indonesian occupation. Up to the time of the massacre the rest of the world mostly supported the Indonesian annexation; partly for oil, partly for arms sales; partly for convenience or disinterest. The UK redeemed itself late in the day when Foreign Secretary Robin Cook supported negotiations which eventually led to a referendum for self determination. On another occasion I visited the Resistance Museum, which told the same story but also covered the early history of the island.
On that note a brief run through of Timorese history seems appropriate. The island was occupied by both the Dutch ad the Portuguese during the 16th C. At first they fought over who ‘owned’ what but eventually they more or less agreed a border, although it wasn’t finally ratified until 1914. For the Portuguese it was the Sandalwood which attracted them. They had constant battles with indigenous peoples but as is always the case, superior forces and weapons gave them the edge and soon it was just another Portuguese colony. After that the priests moved in and today Timor Leste is 97% Catholic.
Roll forward to 1974 and the Carnation Revolution, which ended the dictatorship in Portugal. All its colonies now saw the opportunity for independence and in East Timor FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria Do Timor Leste Independente), the largest of the revolutionary parties, declared independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975. Fearing a communist state within the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military, with Australian, British, and US support, launched an invasion of East Timor in December 1975. Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province on 17 July 1976. A minority of Timorese wanted to be part of Indonesia but the majority didn’t. The genocide of the next 25 years led to a near 25% reduction in the Timorese population, such was the determination of the Indonesian military to quash all resistance. Here I have to give praise to the Catholic church, which supported the rebels as best they could and, in particular, tried to keep their plight active back in Portugal.

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Far too much of this went on.

As mentioned above, it was the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre which woke up the world, particularly Portugal, but it wasn’t until the death of Indonesia’s President Soharto that the UN was able to broker an agreement for a referendum on self determination. It asked the Timorese whether they wanted to remain part of Indonesia and the proposal was rejected by 75% of voters. Elections followed and in May 2002 Timor Leste became the 21st century’s first new sovereign state.
Timor (meaning East in Malay) Leste (meaning East in Portuguese) is about 15,000 square kilometres in size (about 10% larger than Northern Ireland), with a population of around 1.2 million. Its currency is the US dollar and its economy centres on oil, sandalwood, coffee and other agriculture. The official languages are Tetum and Portuguese although English and Indonesian are designated as working languages. It has a low but improving literacy rate, likewise with life expectancy. It will take time for this poor but new country to develop and grow. It starts from a very low base and it could be said that it’s done remarkably well in such a short time. So there we are. Lots more info to be found here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Timor.
Meanwhile it was time for me to leave Dili and head off to explore the Eastern part of East East.

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I was sorry to leave these little cuties behind when I left. Kate and I had adopted them.

Once I’d left Dili the road climbed up a hill before swooping back down again, through a series of hairpin bends, to rejoin the coast. I’d been following a young woman riding a scooter, who tackled the bends with a panache I didn’t have the confidence to match. And the good sense not to try, either. Local knowledge is sometimes all that counts on these roads. But the sea was blue and pretty so who cared about speed of progress? Not me, which was just as well really because it wasn’t very rapid at all. The road was ‘enjoying’ improvement work and about every 100 to 200 metres traffic would be diverted down into a gully alongside it while culverts were installed beneath it, intended, I presume’ to carry monsoon water away. Further along, and as an alternative, there were huge humps in the road where culverts had been half buried then had gravel laid over them, forming the kind of ‘whoops’ beloved of motocross riders. Trixie is not a motocross bike, so ‘steady as she goes’ was the order of the day. I’m guessing that once finished the road will eventually be raised to the same level as the humps and will run on a causeway, making it an all weather route.

A

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A colourful bus makes its way round the roadworks.

I passed through the modern looking town of Manututo but, by contrast, also some very poor hamlets, with driftwood shacks. Some villages consisted entirely of bamboo houses, with deeply overhung reed thatched roofs, but maybe with a brick built administrative building as well. Some others had breeze block houses being built alongside the bamboo ones, so improvements are clearly under way. All villages had electricity, to the village if not to each house, but water mostly came from wells. Timor Leste is a very poor country and is a long way from having the kind of infrastructure that provides running water and sewage disposal, but progress is under way. In the late afternoon I came to the town of Baucau where I found the Victoria Café, precisely as marked on Maps.me. (Easily the best mapping system around). I also found that it was a hotel too, so stopping for the night seemed like a good idea. A simple room, cold shower but cheap price. A nice meal too. I took a walk around the town and was quietly impressed with the quality of this regional capital. It seemed well organised, plenty of shops, buses buzzing up and down and generally clean and tidy. One very encouraging thing I’d seen was that even the smallest villages seemed to have a school, with neatly uniformed kids in attendance. I stopped to take a photo at one point and they all rushed over to look at the curious visitor. I later learned that elementary education is provided up to the age of twelve but I don’t know what the provision is past that age.

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Curious kids wave at me.

Next morning I was woken early by a cacophony of cockerels, and once they’d started they didn’t stop. The loudest of them was right below my window and I was tempted to go out and wring its neck. But I didn’t know what the penalty might be for cock nobbling, so I let it be. A simple breakfast, then back on the road, still following the coast in the warm sunshine. No roadworks now so progress was swifter. I planned to get to Bauro, then head down to Jaco Beach, right on the eastern end of the island. Jaco Island was just off shore, recommended by Kate as being a beautiful place to visit for swimming, snorkeling and so on. At one point I stopped in a village to check directions and a group of lads came over to say hello and to confirm where I needed to turn. One of them asked me for ‘a ciggy’ and his mates where highly amused when I told him off for smoking.

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Standard village housing.

When I eventually turned off the coast road I discovered just how bad Timorese roads can be. A steep track took me up the hill, where I had to fight my way over loose stones and rocks. A guy walking down looked at me in amazement as I bounced past him but I was enjoying the challenge and made it to the top with no problem. Through the town of Bauro, hoping for a cup of coffee, but none to be seen. I did ride past an estate, for want of a better word, of pre-fab houses, neatly laid out and all looking the same. I wondered if it was some kind of camp, but I saw ordinary people doing normal things so I think it was perhaps just a housing project. It did look very out of place though.

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Very put of keeping with the more normal bamboo.

Although I’d been warned about the road down to Jaco Beach I was still surprised at how bad it was. I’m sure it was once a really nicely laid, compacted stone track. But now it was a rocky horror show. Very steep, hairpin bends, loose rocks the size of melons, with ‘step-offs’ from one rock ledge to another of about 200mm. But Trixie and I enjoyed the challenge and got down with no real drama. But I knew that coming back up would be a different story, a real test of man and machine.
There’s beachside accommodation down there so I got a hut for just one night. I’d already decided not to go over to the island but I had a nice swim anyway. At dinner I met two French couples so we had a nice meal, chatting and swapping stories. One of the guys worked for Heinecken, in Dili; his girlfriend, rather mysteriously, does ‘this and that’; the other couple were friends on a visit. They’d come down in a 4WD Ute and very kindly offered to take some of my luggage and to follow up behind me in case I needed assistance. And that assistance was very much required. I nearly made it on my own. I came off when I simply ran out of steam on a steep, loose section, but managed to pick the bike up myself and carry on. But the second time was more than I could deal with. I gently collided with a rock at the side of the track, the bike rolled backwards and I couldn’t stop it, so I baled out and laid it down.

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This time I needed assistance.

Unfortunately it was laying across the track and was over centre, so even with the help of a passing local, I couldn’t manage it. Knowing the others were close behind, I didn’t get too stressed and just waited until they turned up. With five of us it was easy to lift the bike and push it up the last part of that particular steep section and then I rode it up the rest of the way. Even the Ute got stuck at one point, and they had to roll back for a second go. At the top of the track we paused for breath, took photos and said our goodbyes. Although they had introduced themselves last night I didn’t make a note of their names. They said they would email me a couple of photos and remind me of the names as well, but I’ve heard nothing so far. So for now they are simply Mes Amis Francais.

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L’Equipe de Secours.

Going back through Bauro I stopped for some fuel. Not at a petrol station, servo or gas pump. There’s none of that kind of thing out there. I just looked for the wooden rack of 1 litre bottles that I knew would be at the side of the road somewhere and sure enough, I soon saw a row of them, filled with blue fluid. I pulled up and asked the price, and at $1.50 it was half as much again as the price in Dili. I tried to talk it down but he was having none of it, so I settled on ten litres. I’ve no idea what grade it was , nor did I really care. They were poured into my tank through a cloth filter and a funnel by a cheerful young guy. Meanwhile I chatted to his friend who had worked in Manchester for a year so spoke good English. The other young lads in attendance just crowded round and watched the show.

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“Fill ‘er up please mate.”

The road carried on, up and down, and rough as guts. Steep climbs, loose stones, narrow but not too much traffic. Villages tended to be strung out along the road, the buildings a mixture of traditional and modern. Sometimes I came across buses and wondered just how uncomfortable the journey might be on those roads. The continuous stream of small motorcycles and scooters coped quite well but mostly by riding slowly and using local knowledge to pick the best course. I was OK on my off road orientated bike, with its soft, long travel suspension.
But however capable the bike is, the second half of a successful equation is the rider. And here there was something missing. As I came down a slight slope and round a bend, I managed to drift off the side of the road and the front wheel went into a ditch. The bike flipped round, I flew off and landed on my back, hard enough to completely knock the wind out of me, and I somehow managed to face-plant into the muddy ditch too. I sat up, trying hard to draw breath, and was immediately helped by some people who’d been working in the adjacent fields. They picked me up but I couldn’t manage to stand, so sat down again. One of them went off to fetch some water and then washed my hands and face for me. Eventually I was able to stand and was helped up the slope to one of their buildings where I laid down on the floor, seeking a position that was comfortable and pain free. And I stayed like that for most of the next three days, taking painkillers, sleeping and eating the simple food they provided me with. They were kindness personified but unfortunately we had no common language so were completely unable to communicate past simple sign language. They only spoke a local dialect so even my few words of Indonesian didn’t help. Later on some other people came round and moved my bike off the road and up to where I was.

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I didn’t look, and I wasn’t feeling, very good.

The family seemed to consist of a married couple, with five young children; another man of a similar age to the husband; an old couple; another man of the same age. Their accommodation consisted of a two storey building, the upper part of which was for cooking, the lower part for sleeping. Another building had a bedroom in it and there were various outhouse structures connected with animals. Apart from one, which had a large fire pit in it. This was used for boiling their spring water to make it drinkable. After three days of I was getting a bit sick of woodsmoke flavoured drinking water! They kept cattle, hens, a variety of skinny looking dogs, and a pig, which walked around with a stick tied to one end of the rope that was tied around it. An effective means of preventing escape. They also had some agriculture on the go, but I’m not sure exactly what.
Some visitors came by, one of them speaking a little English. He asked me if I wanted an ambulance but I declined, saying that f I could stay where I was for a couple of days I’d be better off. I couldn’t imagine where an ambulance might have taken me anyway as there were no medical facilities nearby. They were all OK with that so that relieved me somewhat.

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One of my hosts and the place where I slept.

The old fella was very solicitous in looking after me, making sure I had plenty of water, showing me where I could wash etc. He took it upon himself to clean my muddy riding gear too. I couldn’t have asked for more, despite the very basic facilities. On the third day, Sunday, I felt ready to try riding again. I was desperate to change the hard floor I’d been sleeping on for a soft bed, and the chance to eat something other than rice, scrappy bits of chicken and noodle soup. So I slowly packed my gear away and changed into my riding gear. I gave the old fella some money but that was very quickly demanded by his wife, obviously the boss of the operation. Handshakes and hugs, and then I left.

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The Boss.

I headed for the regional town of Viqueque, where I knew there was good accommodation and a hospital. The road there was no better than previously, proving to be 70kms of hell. But, by stopping every 10-15kms for a rest, a stretch and a drink, I made it to Motel Borala. There I had a soft bed, a hot shower and a nearby café that sold good food. On Monday I was taken down to a clinic to see a doctor. I couldn’t quite understand why the people who ran the motel didn’t take me to the hospital, but the Cuban doctor soon confirmed what I had thought – that I had cracked a rib.The back protector in my riding jacket had done its job well but I’d been bruised up nicely. He just gave me more paracetamol and told me to rest. I asked them how much I owed – Nada. I offered a donation – Nada once more. This was one of those free clinics gifted by Cuba to third world countries. All I could say was “Thanks Fidel, you weren’t such a bad guy after all.”

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The kind of bed you dream of scoring in.

I spent another five days resting and trying to find how best to manage the discomfort but eventually I felt fit enough to tackle the ride back to Dili. As I left Viqueque the road out of town was smooth asphalt and I was hopeful of an easier journey, but it didn’t last long before it deteriorated into the usual rocky hell. But it did improve eventually, especially after it had come down the 1200 metre mountain. Although the last 50kms were really tough, I got there in the end. And I really did enjoy the beer I had that night.
Seven days in Dili, mostly spent resting. Various people passed through, with whom it was nice to socialise. They included a very blonde German woman who said that when she was in Flores people kept prodding her to make sure she was real. Given that she was on her own this was, not unnaturally, very disconcerting for her.

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A sacred house, although I’m not sure what goes in them.

I did a few jobs on the bike and in the process discovered that one side of my luggage rack had broken in two places. Bad roads always take their toll. Just down the road was a small workshop where I got it welded back together. I was amused but concerned to see the guy sensibly using eye protection when he used the grinder to prepare the metal, but none at all when he actually welded it with his arc welder. But it was not for me to say anything and he did a good job.

Not much good.                                                   Now good to go.

Eventually I had to leave because the validity of my Indonesian visa was soon to expire. I was annoyed by the delay and that I hadn’t been able to visit some of the places in Timor Leste that had been recommended to me. All my own fault, of course, but that didn’t make me feel better about it. At least I could safely(?) say that it had been an adventure. I packed my gear on a sunny Friday morning and set off for the border.

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It always puzzles me when non-English speaking countries write signs in English.

9 thoughts on “Timor Leste

  1. Bob Hines says:

    Cheers Geoff yet another fascinating read,I don’t think I’d have ventured on those “roads”
    Safe travels,
    Bob

    Sent from my iPad

  2. David & Jean Keys says:

    Fascinating Geoff. You were blessed with good luck when you had your tumble as it could have been so much worse. Nice to encounter friendly and helpful people as well. Look forward to more installments of your adventures. Stay safe!
    Dave and Jean

  3. Wyn Grant says:

    This is amazing stuff as always. I couldn’t even attempt something like that. Indeed, I have never been to such a poor country or really to any developing country.

  4. paul haworth says:

    yet again, a great read …. BUT had a huge belly laugh at the face plant photo (sorry) but funny !!! please stay upright….

  5. French Rescue Team says:

    Bonjour!
    French team here, well at least the very sad side of the team, who had to fly back home at some point and return to work, we miss Timor so much!
    Sorry to read about your misfortune after the road of Jaco, truly roads are hell over there…
    We still have photos to send, not forgotten but overbooked with work and stuff, proof is we are reading your blog!
    Good luck on the rest of the road, we’ll be following on that… And if you come back to our continent, you’re welcome in Grenoble France, less exotic, nice roads though!!
    Cheers!
    (I don’t think I will give our names now, the rescue team sounds so nice!!!)

    • Bonjour Mes Amis.
      Very nice to hear from you, so pleased you enjoyed the blog. Thanks once more for helping me out, I’d have really struggled without you all.
      Take care.
      Geoff

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