At first I thought the tweeting existed just in my head. A symptom, perhaps, of spending too long on the go: a taxi, a plane ride with a brief stop, a ride from the airport on the back of a motorbike, and now several hours in a bus. Probably it was the heat, or the early star, probably I was just going a bit loopy.
But as the chirping persisted I decided I couldn’t just be imagining it. It had to be coming from somewhere.
At our next rest stop – a dimly lit warung with food displayed in the window from about 1983 – I snuck a look in the back of the van, determined to solve the mystery. And sure enough, perched innocuously on top of the bags was a cardboard box, tied neatly with string for ease of transport, holes punched in its sides, from which the noise was emanating.
I wasn’t mad. I was just sharing a bus with some newly hatched chicks.
That was a relief.
I settled back down into my seat to wait for the other passengers to finish their lunch so we could resume the long journey through to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, where we were headed. It was 10am: five hours into the journey with another seven or so to go.
It’s a long old way.
In all honesty I couldn’t really believe that I’d actually made it as far as getting the bus. My thirty days in Indonesia were up – to the exact day – but my slightly misinformed decision to go by land to East Timor made things a bit complicated. Everything I’d heard and read suggested that I would need to stay several days in Kupang, West Timor, in order to wait for a visa authorisation letter which would be needed at the border.
Except I didn’t have three days.
Yet once again, optimism, politeness, luck and some careful flattery had won the day. I arrived in Kupang the day before I had to leave the country, made it to the consulate a mere hour before they were closing for the weekend, and yet somehow managed to leave with the authorisation letter in hand, and a not insubstantial feeling of relief.
“Ramshackle” is the first word that comes to mind when describing the coastal town of Kupang in Indonesian West Timor. I spent just the one day there, but I saw a fair bit of it as I was ferried around town collecting all the necessary documents for my East Timor visa. Corrugated iron rooves and colourful shacks on sticks fringed the main streets: large, concrete, corporate buildings shared space with ones that looked like a badly timed sneeze might knock them over.
The magic of Facebook meant that I had found someone who’d be able to help me in my quest for travel at lightning speed: a man named Edwin Lerrick, who runs Lavalon hostel on the sea front. I had heard that he was very helpful in getting things sorted for people staying at his place, so I WhatsApp’ed him and before I knew it I had a plan.
I did almost everything wrong in this particular instance of travel planning. All the advice I usually give to other people I hadn’t followed. Everything was poised for a huge failure, and a subsequent necessity for either an expensive flight out of the country, or a slightly less expensive fine for every day I overstayed my Indonesian visa. It wasn’t looking good.
And then along comes Edwin, and suddenly everything works out totally fine. It is very useful to have a contact who knows what they are doing.
So I flew in from Flores, hopped on the back of Edwin’s motorbike, rucksack and all, and off we went around town. I had to get passport photos taken, print out a copy of a bank statement, and exchange some money into US dollars for the prospective visa fee.
My flight from Flores arrived at 11.50am. The consulate closes at 3pm on Fridays (not that I knew this yet).
I was cutting it pretty fine.
But in due course we collected all the bits I needed, and sped off to the consulate.
Naturally they were closed for lunch.
So we duly motored off to the hostel for a spot of mie goreng, and to drop off my rucksack in the room (up until now it had been wedged precariously at the front of the bike, between Edwin’s knees).
Back we went at 2 o’clock, to what is surely the least available consulate in the world, and there I tried my luck for this blasted visa approval letter. I had my documents all ready to go and wore my biggest smile as I approached the office window.
Then I heard the words I had been dreading: “Not possible, madam.”
I had filled in a form and surrendered copies of my passport and bank statement, rushed around town to get everything printed, submitted to possibly the most disgusting passport photos of all time, waited for the office to finish their afternoon tea, and now I was going to fall at the last hurdle?
I don’t think so.
In the end it was actually pretty easy to flatter, cajole and persuade my way to getting the approval letter printed. I just asked very, very nicely. I pleaded and pushed and in the end the guy said OK. I don’t know why it normally takes three working days to get it done, when all they need to do is print off a letter, but there you go.
So I left triumphant, visa approval letter in hand, and sped off to the hostel again, feeling quite smug actually. Even Edwin hadn’t thought I’d be able to get it done the same day (actually, the same hour), but once again luck was on my side.
I celebrated my victory by accepting a glass of Balinese red wine. It was not a decision I would particularly make again, but at least I know for next time – Balinese wine is like their coffee: grainy and a bit disappointing.
That evening I went out to eat at Kupang’s night market with a couple of others from the hostel. It was the first true street food I’d had since I’d been in Indonesia, and my god was it good.
I wasn’t brave enough for the barbecue – the fish made me a little nervous, with their staring eyes and accompanying cloud of flies – but I did have a delicious plate of Gado Gado, and some ice tea to wash it down. Not a bad meal for $2.
We left sharpish after one of my companions had a less than pleasant encounter with a strange character, possibly a eunuch, who would not leave us alone but stood there gyrating creepily to their boom box music, waiting for us to give them money.
I went to bed when we got back to the hostel: the 5am bus meant a 4am start, and I wasn’t really in the mood for sleep deprivation.
The next morning I was treated to breakfast (a banana pancake, what a surprise) and coffee before my departure, and the bus came to pick me up right on time. And there I was, sharing a bus for twelve-plus hours with a crate of chickens and a load of Timorese locals.
I was pleasantly surprised by the ride from Kupang to the border at Butagade. Almost all of it was tarmacked, it was lovely. And the music was only slightly deafening – I even managed a bit of kip.
We had to change buses for the ride from the border to Dili, so everyone piled out (chickens in hand), and made our way through immigration, filling in several forms all with pretty much the same information.
By some miracle, it turned out that I didn’t even need my visa authorisation, and nor did I have to pay for my 90 days on entry. It goes to show, yet again, that stressing out about things is a waste of time.
So I sailed through border control, and onto another bus for the rest of the way to Dili.
Once the engine spluttered into life and we set off from the border, I quickly recognised that there is a significant difference between Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
One has roads. The other has stretches of beaten-down track, which are used by vehicles to travel from point to point. I swear, on the stretch from Batugade to Dili, there were more potholes than actual road.
Part of the reason I chose to do the land border crossing was because I’d heard that the route takes you through some beautiful scenery, and because you get to have a glimpse – without trying – at life in the more remote parts of the country. Well, both of those things were certainly true, but it was a bit hard to concentrate on the rural splendour when most of your attention was being taken up by the fact that your bones were being rattled out of their sockets.
Even so, I would still say it was worth the journey. Dili itself is just another big city, and flying in you wouldn’t get any feel for what Timor-Leste is actually like. Here we were privy to life as it exists for most of the country; life in houses with straw rooves built on stilts, life where seeing a white person coming past your village on a bus is cause for considerable confusion.
The coastal road for the latter part of the journey was also pretty spectacular – a road which, in most other countries, would likely have coachloads of tourists driving the route every day, probably several car parks along the road, and likely a little visitors centre selling overpriced stationary.
That’s the thing about Timor-Leste. It’s full of things that in Indonesia, or Vietnam, or India, would be crammed with tourists wielding selfie sticks, but here the hordes haven’t caught on yet.
It was a strange transition, making my way east from Bali, as the tourist numbers gradually died off, through Lombok, Flores, and West Timor, but an interesting one.
I eventually arrived to the mild chaos of Dili, in the dark and utterly exhausted from spending over twelve hours in a sweaty leather seat. I was excited to start exploring, but for now the only thing I could contemplate was bed. And so, to bed I went.