x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A curious destination

Into the wild Sometimes East Timor feels like there is nothing to do and nowhere to go, but at least there's plenty of grilled fish.

An open air market in an old Portuguese Mercado building in the town of Baucau.
An open air market in an old Portuguese Mercado building in the town of Baucau.

There is nothing to do and, for now, there's nowhere to go, but at least there's plenty of grilled fish. It could be worse. I'm on the northern coastal motorway in East Timor in a town called Caravela or, as I call it, Restaurant Town. Over a dozen grey, faded huts line either side of the thin road and though there are many huts they sell the same thing: fish. And coconut rice. The fish and rice stalls illustrate the universal phenomenon of uniform competition that exists all over the developing world. The stalls are the same size, offer the same meal for the same price and though there are infinite ways to improve, originality is contrary to the social fabric and an unknown economic risk.

These stalls are efficient assembly lines wherein the men catch the fish in the mornings and the women sell them the rest of the day. Add salad or a vegetable side to the equation and you're risking your few dollars of daily profit. Who would buy vegetables? Maybe no one. Or, what if everyone wanted vegetables? What if your stall made more money than your neighbour's stall? You would gain public opprobrium and vicious private slander. Who likes those odds? Nobody. So they all eke by.

Luckily this tiny seaside hamlet is a boon for aid workers and bus passengers, all of whom stop for lunch. Caravela is located about halfway from Lospalos, a large eastern city and Dili, the national capital, so buses running this route naturally hit Caravela around noon. But now there are no customers. It's two in the afternoon and the sun hammers the dry, scrubby land and living things don't move. There are no clouds and there is no breeze, though somewhere behind me, through a thicket of weeds, waves rush against the beach rocks. Ignoring the thatched huts I can imagine this as some post-apocalyptic outpost. With grilled fish. Somewhere a cock crows, though his call is half-hearted and chokes prematurely.

I'm on my way to Baucau, the second largest city in East Timor, which doesn't mean much. It means there's electricity at night and some of the restaurants have vegetables. Baucau is on Timor's northern coast and it's got a terrific public pool fed by springs. For a dollar or so you're in all day and on the hottest days (and aren't they all eight degrees below the equator?) the pool is cool and invigorating. But these words fail the pool because, in Timor, the pool is more than the sum of its cold spring water, single high dive and flower garden. This pool is a vibrant oasis buried in the old town section of Baucau - a section marked by decrepit Portuguese buildings, an abandoned Portuguese market and ubiquitous street hawkers. The pool was one of the few remnants of the town's colonial past which was refurbished to working order and it stands as a monument to a time before safety regulations. There is no marked water depth, there are no lifeguards and there are no posted rules and regulations. Like the rest of the country this laissez-faire attitude encourages a goodly amount of self-reliance; do what you want, have fun, take care of yourself.

After the dry, post-apocalyptic fish stands, it's a friendly place. Though the pool is not popular among Timorese, there are always a few children splashing around and tumbling down the slide. It is clean and cold and, after the desert of Caravela, a welcome oasis. The fish is a pile of bones now. I pay a couple of dollars and park myself under a tamarind tree and await transportation. Without a car or motorbike, Timor can be accommodating to hitchhikers. One must look out for drunken motorists, but such precautions ought to be taken before riding with anyone here. The most intoxicated driver I ever rode with was driving public transport.

If you get the impression Timor is not a destination for your comfort tourist, you're right. There're no beach massages here and good luck if you're a vegetarian, but if you're a curious sort then the country opens itself up to you the way few others do. With lax laws, pleasant people and a definite mañana attitude, Timor has its own hidden charms. When I hitch I look for lorries, sometimes carrying rocks, sand, cows or, once, mattresses. Standing in the lorry's flatbed as it chugs down the coast, the country whisks by and Timor comes alive in a way it never does on overcrowded, hot buses. To your left is the sea and far out on the horizon lie tiny Indonesian islands. To your right lie jagged mountains and hidden within is jungle, small towns and a cooler, wetter country.

But, of course, this truck is going to Baucau and I to the pool. The mountains will have to wait for another day. For a place with little to do, there's a lot of places to do it. @Email:jwright@thenational.ae