Travel: The end of the road in Timor
Back in the summer of 2000/2001, as a naïve and idealistic eighteen-year old, I left the dry summer heat of Western Australia, for the tropics of East Timor. I believed that after completing one year of medical studies I was well equipped to deal with the flailing health needs of a new nation recovering from years of war – nice belief!
I also thought that my year spent in Brazil on exchange two years previously could redeem itself as not purely having taught me a fine appreciation of how to party, but perhaps also equipping me with some half-decent fluency in Portuguese which I could make use of in the old Portuguese colony of Timor. And so I ended up spending three months in Aileu, a small village up in the mountains from Dili, teaching in the local high school and working in the health clinic. The work was intense. It sure wasn’t your typical summer-break holiday.
The international peace-keeping force were still floating around in large numbers, enjoying their decaf soy lattes in the recently erected “western” cafes in Dili whilst sporting their glowing red faces, courtesy of the malaria prophylactic medication – more common than the common cold in these parts of the world. Most of the atrocities stemming from the 1999 vote for independence had settled down, but every so often word floated around of some wild things going on down near Timor's East/West border.
Christmas came around, and I had four days off school, and there stemmed my ulterior motive of heading to Timor. When I had first arrived in town, the mountain people of Aileu couldn’t understand what that six foot piece of fibreglass under my arm could possibly be used for. They couldn’t understand its use any easier a couple of months later, as they flocked around enchanted by the weird object whilst I stood in the middle of betel-nut spitting old lasses and old fellas running cockfights in the market square, waiting as patiently as a westerner can, for some kind of lift to the south coast.
As a day of waiting was drawing to an end, and the men started to part with either money and a proud rooster in arms, or no money and a dead rooster for the evening meal, I heard a shout, “Mister, you are heading down to Suai hey? Jump on.” So I did and found myself in the back of a rear-end loader with half a tonne of building stones, my board, two Timorese men and their newly bought pet pig Roderigo. I was heading to the south coast, where I was certain there was a window for swell to enter between the north coast of Australia and Timor – I was going to find some surf.
The anticipation of waves was rampant. I could feel it in the cool mountain air as we wound our way around mountain and down valley, snuggling up to the warmth of Roderigo. I could feel it in my bones, yearning for a break from this two month drought of no surf. It's all I could think about as sleeping was near impossible on my Buddhist monk-like bed of rocks. Arriving at dawn in Suai, I couldn’t help but notice a change in vibe, where had all those happy smiles from the Timorese I was used to gone? Why was no-one happy to talk to me? Oh well, save those thoughts for the trip home I thought, take me to the coast, coat my body in salt water.
The next two days were painful. I spent most time on foot, occasionally getting a ride on the back of a Ute, trying to scope out as much of the coast as I could. At night I pitched up a mosquito net and lay my board bag underneath a door way in an abandoned burnt-down and graffiti-ridden Indonesian Barracks. I couldn’t complain about the location, prime real estate on the beach. But for some reason I didn’t manage much sleep in between the stifling heat and my mind wandering to what may have gone on not that long ago where I was sleeping.
After a couple solid days of exploring I was still unsure whether this stretch of coastline ever got quality surf. Whether decent swell never made it to the coastline, or whether there was just little swell running whilst I was there, I was undecided. Either way I knew the potential was insane. The northwest trade-winds were blowing a perfect all day offshore, and there was an abundance of set-ups – pointbreaks, rivermouths, beachies, and reefbreaks. All that was needed was swell. I had convinced myself before arrival that I was only getting into the “saltwater crocodile” infested waters if it was cranking. God damn those perfectly peeling knee high waves!
A little disappointed, but somewhat relieved to be leaving this strange environment, I made my way to the UN building in Suai where I had heard a bus was leaving at dawn the next morning. The local Timorese “security” at the door, like the mountain people of Aileu, had never seen a surf board before. Trying to explain the idea of catching waves to them was as foreign as trying to tell an ant about a horse in the other side of the paddock. Conversation grew mundane, until one of them briefly mentioned something which had previously crossed my mind, “these waves you talk about, I have seen some of them, bigger than those here, up near the border, not far from here, maybe two or three hours.”
It was logical – the further west the more open the coast was to swell. My mind started ticking: leave the board here at the UN building, head west towards the border, have a look, get out of there before sunset, and back in time for the bus. I wasn’t yet convinced there were no waves, it had to be done. So leaving with a couple American dollars for a lift in my back pocket I set out on the road, keen as mustard. A standard taxi-ute full of people picked me up, and out spluttered the crude petrol as we worked our way up the coast. The man took me as far as he went, some distance past the small village of Suai Loro.
I wasn’t quite thinking about how I would get back and was completely unaware of the hostile looks I was receiving. I had exploration on the mind and floundered forward towards a battered path to the coast. I liked what I saw, there was definitely more swell, maybe head high sets, but no setup in eye sight. I was startled by a group of young kids who must have followed me to the beach, and now started asking me what I was doing. Foreseeing the futility of describing the concept of surfing, I said I was just going for a walk and wanted to keep heading up towards the border.
I was stopped in my tracks by a lad barely out of his nappies with the face of a man who had lived one hundred years, “No mister! Very dangerous, they will kill you there.” My cloud of surf discovery happiness fell apart in a heavy downpour, what followed were horror stories of lives being lost as recently as three days previously, family members disappearing, gunshots being heard everywhere. From their mouths it seemed that constant battle was still ongoing between local pro-Indonesia militia and pro-independence Timorese. These were stories that barely even made their way to Dili, let alone to international media. I suddenly lost that urge to find surf. Being the only white person within miles and with the sun starting to make its way to the horizon, maybe it was a good idea to get back to Suai.
Walking back through the village, every bad sign was picked up by my hypersensitive mind. There was no noise, only what seemed an endless road ahead to Suai. The looks being paid to me were not the standard looks of curiosity at the white foreigner, but rather the looks you receive from a testosterone-driven minor in a small country pub. The day was quickly fading and the suns rays were now barely making their way through the palm fringes. Fear really began to take hold when I noticed the same man ride past me for the third time on his bike…
”Vem ca, vem ca, senhor!”
The silence shattered in my ears as I snapped back into reality, hearing the old man across the road call me over in Portuguese. I sighed in relief, knowing well that only the older pro-Independence Timorese speak Portuguese, and made my way across the road where I was quickly ushered inside. I found myself amongst a group of elderly Timorese men who noticed me pass on my way to the beach and needed to speak to me. There was no talk of surf, no talk of what I had found on the beach, or how I was enjoying Timor, this was business.
“Senhor, please, everyone has forgotten us here. People still get killed, but no-one knows, no-one cares. Go tell your people, tell your Prime Minister, we need help.” I felt their frustration and fear, and wanted to stay to hear their story, but my vision had caught the sight of the man on his bike through the bare-glassed window. He looked through my eyes and sent a chill down my spine, it was time to get the hell out of there. I told the men I would try my best, would give little Johnny my standard weekly call, and as I left couldn’t help but feel like a martyr-to-be, as these men I had just met farewelled me with loving embraces.
I picked up the pace outside. My eyes focused on the ground in front of my feet, minimal contact is what I was going for. I could feel tension in every muscle of my body. I was fighting to keep my double-plugger thongs firmly on my feet. It’s not an easy task when walking at pace with a massive lubricating body of sweat surrounding calloused feet. “Please God, not the best time to bust a plug, grant these humble thongs a few more steps!” I begged. I couldn’t help but think I should have just stayed at the UN building and been satisfied there was no surf along this coast.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” The man on the bike was alongside me. “What do you want? You are a journalist aren’t you, what did those men tell you?”
“Nothing. No I’m not a journalist. I am looking for surf….”
Fuck, how am I going to explain that? Where is my board when I need it! I tried to excuse myself, and kept walking.
“What are you looking for, tell me!”
My path was stopped by a group of men in front of me. I had no choice, so there began my nervous ramble trying to explain the concept of surfing to another group of “surfvirgins”, only this time they were angry. And only this time it had now become a dozen pro-Indonesia Timorese men. And only this time I was unsure whether the machetes in their hands were used for cutting their gardens – surely you don’t get knuckles that white from holding your garden tools.
Everything was happening so quickly. I could tell they thought my description of lumps in the water was a hoax. I couldn’t see any path out of my personal machete-armed circle.
“Please can I speak to the Chief of the village?”
“That’s me,” says my old friend on the bicycle. Well that’s just fucking brilliant I thought as he brought me a plastic chair and forced me to sit down in the middle of the circle. “You are staying here tonight.”
The scene was set. The sun was now gone, leaving an afterglow of dim light. There was a white man sitting on a chair in the middle of the road, and there were a group of angry machete-wielding men keeping him company. Headlines the next day were flashing through my mind. And then they stopped flashing, as I soon realised there would be no headlines. No-one knew were I was, and I am pretty sure my friendly chief on the bike wasn’t going to tell them.
Voices rose, fists were flared, emotions were rampant. In a moment of insanity my mind denounced surfing as the devil’s sin….. then all of a sudden heads turned away from me and looked down the street. What was going on? Was there another pseudo-journalist looking for surf? I craned my head within a slither of vision, and just as the crunch of heavy tyres on the gravel drew to a standstill, I saw an army truck spill forth a dozen of my now favourite New Zealand troops! My mind was in slow mode but action was at full speed. Six of the best kept their trusty AK-47s on target, as one walked over and escorted me back to the truck. As quickly as the truck arrived, it did a U-turn and was gone. But thank fuck, for I had joined the party for the trip back.
“Are you all right, mate?”
Oh how that New Zealand accent rung church bells in my ears.
“Yeah, I think so, I didn’t have time to think, not quite sure what was going on.”
The boys reckon they knew what was going on, they don’t point those AK-47s at every Tom, Dick and Roderigo. Turns out they were on their way to do the last border check for the evening. They told me there wouldn’t have been anyone coming past till morning, let alone five minutes later. It was the finest piece of best timing I’ve ever seen, couldn’t have scripted it better. They decided the border check could wait till the next day, and started driving back to Suai. A big Maori fella smiled, paused for a moment, and then bluntly asked what the fuck I was doing out that way.
“I was looking for surf.”
It was the only thing said. But I tell you what, the laughter didn’t stop the whole way back to Suai. Definitely the best one-liner I’ve ever come up with.
// PAUL RICCIARDO