The clock’s ticking

It’s just over 30 days until we’ll make our way back to New Zealand for Christmas. I’ll be staying on to start back at work and Mark will return to Timor-Leste to finish his assignment and while I’m not ready to talk about how sad that thought is, or to make you endure my heart sickness just yet, the sense of an end date approaching has given us a focus on what we HAVE to do before we leave.

We’ve seen a lot of the country, you’ve possibly followed us on our journeys up into the mountains, out to the coast and to the offshore island of Arturo and this weekend we made our way to arguably the jewel in the crown, the enclave of Oe-cusse.

If you look at the map of Timor-Leste, you’ll see off down to the West a blob in the middle of Indonesia and that’s Oecusse.

From Dili it’s a 35-minute flight, a 6 plus hour drive or a 12-hour overnight ferry. Each of the routes has its own challenges…the drive means travelling across the Indonesian border and it’s a complicated mission for first timers, you can secure a cabin on the ferry from one of the crew if you’re lucky (and ask the right guy) otherwise its a long 6pm to 6am awake and although the flight itself is super easy, getting on to the plane can be a bit hit and miss.

We were due out on Saturday, check in at 6am. We’d gone and booked the seats 3 weeks earlier, but we couldn’t buy tickets and we weren’t sure if they actually existed until we turned up at the airport.

Check in was at 6am, and then it was at 10 am, and then 10.40 am and then 12 noon. You get to the airport and go through security and THEN you buy your ticket. We’d heard that the plane had been grounded last week for some maintenance and we weren’t convinced we’d be on it until we actually took off.

At the other end of the flight is the Roto do Sandalo International Airport, it cost $119 million USD and was opened in June 2019. The chairs are still covered in plastic. While it complies with international standards it still isn’t accredited for international flights. Our little Twin Otter 19-seater plane is dwarfed by the place and the processes. Ground crew are pretty excited to see us.

It’s just the beginning of a visit that is punctuated with strange half complete, barely started projects and the whole place has a very weird “nearly there, could be great” vibe to it.

In 2014  the government created the Special Administrative Region of Oe-Cusse Ambeno. A national development programme to implement governmental policy, called ZEESM TL (Special Zones of Social Market Economy of Timor-Leste) is in place  with President Mari Alkatiri, a former Prime Minister of East Timor at the helm. 

The East Timor government that established the ZEESM TL programme was hoping that it would bring economic sustainability before the country’s oil and gas reserves run out. However, there has been criticism of the programme’s lack of transparency and accountability, and its absence of any public cost-benefit or risk analysis, or any significant private investment. Questions have also been raised as to whether the programme is one that is necessarily appropriate for the area, or likely to be in the best interests of its citizens. 

According to one commentator, many observers of East Timor’s strategic investment choices have wondered, “Why is the government of a country comprised of [largely] subsistence farmers obsessed with glitzy prestige projects at the expense of more pressing needs such as health and agriculture?” 

You’ll see these glitzy projects in all sorts of places. The new memorial at the site of the first landing where the trees have been cut down and the perimeters ringed with corrugated tin, where you have to peel open a hole to walk through because the security guard is off somewhere. Giant statues and a boat sit on a concrete platform with a waterless moat.

There’s always been a more humble memorial here to commemorate the first parts of the island of Timor on which the Portuguese established themselves. Considered the cradle of East Timor, the Dominican friar António Taveiro started missionary work here in 1556.It didn’t take long, by 1569 the area of Lifau was mentioned on a European map. 

A dual carriage way will take you all through town, the roads are remarkable, the footpaths 3 metres wide, and if you follow one of them out past the airport you’ll come across the bridge to nowhere at Noefefan. It’s the longest in Timor-Leste and it goes…nowhere.

Up by the hospital (mostly good, Cuban doctors) there’s a new build. It’s a clinic designed for the global growth area of health and beauty tourism. Come to Oe-Cusse, leave with new boobs! Except there’re MRI’s and CT scanners and no one who can use them. There’re no technicians. There is a pharmacy. But there’s no medicine. Certainly no famous plastic surgeons ready to pull your droopy bits into line.

It’s stage one of a three stage development. It’s stalled. There is one blessing however. The doctors that are there are accepting local patients.

There’s a 5 star hotel that’s been built at the edge of a swamp. It’s the central piece of a tourism jigsaw that was meant to include golf courses and casinos. 

The pool is empty, there’s no power on, security walks out of the guard house to see who we are and why we have stopped by. The grass is brown because there’s no water, not just for the garden, but for anywhere in the hotel. Our guide wonders what may happen in the rainy season when the mudflats fill and its more swamp than desert.

These places are surreal, almost darkly funny until you realise that to build the hotel 30 families were moved off their land and shuffled down the road. No consultation, no negotiation, no reimbursement.

But crikey it’s peaceful and beautiful and the water is warm and the snorkelling (if the tide is right) is great. There’s parrot fish and clown fish and iridescent blue fish and turtles and down the road a bit, a couple of dugongs doing what dugongs do.

We stay at a place beachside, Oecusse Amasat, hosted by an exported Aussie called Mark and his Timorese wife, Vero. The rooms are sound, the beds comfy, there’s aircon, flushing toilets, a good shower, a bar with cold beers and good food. Mark makes us up an “esky”…really it’s a chilly bin, with a few Bintang and we carry our chairs over to the beach to watch the sunset. On our second night we turn our chairs so the sun sets behind us so we can watch the thunder and lightning of a tropical storm front that seems to be racing towards us. The wind gets up, there’s 3 or 4 drops of rain and we realise we are sitting on the very edge of it and it’s doing its worst out at sea. I am slightly disappointed.

The local guys at the guest house help take the kayaks out, and we borrow snorkelling gear. It’s a gentle stroll across the road and down to the water. There’s a dog on site. His name is Captain. He sleeps in the middle of the path but wakes when he hears we are getting ready to go. He leads us across the road and lies down beside our gear and growls at passers-by. He keeps his eye out while we swim and escorts us back across the road when we are done. Payment for his services of a bit of a belly rub and a scratch behind the ear seem to be enough to encourage him to do the same thing the next day.

Mark and Vero have 5 children and they are ably led by their eldest daughter, a 12 year old who leaves us in awe of her capability. She’s sorting out the bar, the snacks and the bill at the end. She’s doing the cooking. She speaks 5 languages, the local dialect Meto, Portuguese, Bahasa, Tetun and English. She’d give all of us a run for our money when it came to organisational skills and she’s polite and funny.

Mid-way through the afternoon, post a swim, just out of the shower and the kids come running to us. “There’s a whale, a whale” they say. And we pull on whatever clothes are handy and race across the road. Captain’s with us of course.

It’s us and a gaggle of kids scanning the horizon and I don’t know who shouts first, or who’s the most excited but we see one spout and then another and another and some dark shapes rising just above the water. The kids climb the tree for a better view.

At the guesthouse there’s a brochure outlining any number of great walks you can do, visits to waterfalls and mud pools. We’re from New Zealand, we don’t want to compete in the bubbling mud stakes so we decline. Mark can hire you a scooter, he’ll pick you up from the airport and he’ll take you on a tour around town. You can do as much or as little as you want.

We choose the odd afternoon nap and the serenity. We didn’t hear a rooster all weekend.

My Mark and I talk about how we could live here. In contrast to the heat and dust of Dili, Oe-Cusse is a haven of peace. The weather seems more temperate, the air clearer. We could rebuild that old Portuguese building down by the esplanade, I’d help out with the tourism projects, he’d build a garden, grow some cows, goats and pigs. We’d have a little boat with an outboard motor and we’d catch our dinner. I’d bake bread in the oven he builds me out the back. We’d learn Portuguese and our Tetun would improve with more practice. We’d buy a little Cesna and learn to fly. 

Later still we get philosophical over a bottle of Portuguese red wine. “Has being in Timor-Leste changed you do you think?” 

I’ll answer that next time.

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