Back from a Bali refresher

We spent a week in Bali between Christmas and New Year.  A couple of things have changed back here but it is worth commenting on some of the noticable differences between Dili and Bali.

It was only days before we left that an Australian government advisory came out warning about potential trouble in Bali and advising against non-essential travel.  We didn’t even bat an eyelid over that one.  Arrived in Bali and had the fastest airport movement (through immigration, I meant !) I have ever had in Bali.  Later it became clear that the tourist numbers were well down.

I am not a Hawaian shirt wearing, zoom lens toting tourist with a bag of souvenirs under my arm so I don’t have a lot of time for kazillions of souvenir shops and the buying of another “I’ve been to Bali” t-shirt.  But I was gobsmacked at the staggering number of souvenir/art shops and not a tourist in sight.  It turns out they are hurting really bad.

At the remote hotel we stayed at for part of the time, there were acceptable numbers when we were there but no bookings after 8 January.  And they had spent 3 months during last year without a single guest.  As for the staff, they just went back to tending the family rice paddy or whatever.

We spent New Year in Ubud and again, I was gobsmacked.  Hardly a single tourist on the streets after dark.  3/4 of all restaurants empty.  Restaurants who had decorated themselves with balloons etc. for New Year and not a single customer.

Only the flash trendy upmarket foreigner restaurants seemed to making any headway.  Definitely no backpacker types looking for the best cheap eats in town. But it did mean eating a wonderful meal at New Year at 2/3 of Dili prices (and infinitely more exquisite) and not having to book.

A lot of Balinese are doing it really hard.

Security message for Santa

Its hard to know just what many people outside Timor-Leste think about the state of personal security here. It would appear that there are no English speaking reporters based here to paint a continuous picture on this.

I also get the feeling that the Timorese government do not want security issues to be seen as the most important issue here. (Most governments do not like advertising negatives.)

I suppose I have just become accustomed to the new reality. At least there are no armed personnel carriers patrolling the streets – that stopped months ago. Chopper work reduced a month or so ago but it is still a surefire indicator of trouble somewhere around town if you hear one circling. There are definitely more UN police around now so you know one is never far away.

Many expats operate under movement restrictions courtesy of employers directives. Some are not allowed to use vehicles after dark, some are not allowed to use taxis, some have been directed to move their place of abode to safer parts of town and to premises with higher security (eg behind walls and guarded).

I was talking to one of the many Filipinos working here recently. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss is about. It happens every day in Manila and worse. But I pointed out that the security issues here are affecting government stability and anyone could be affected.

On Sunday, I was going to a friend’s place at dusk but Comorro Road appeared to be blocked near the OZ Embassy so I just took an alternative route. (The police were just tidying up after the big dust-up near the mosque on Sunday.) Earlier, I had been to to the Tasi Tolu races and had a great day but I was told of another expat who had been at the beach at Tasi Tolu that afternoon (perhaps at Dili Rock). He was threatened with a machete and had his car windows broken. I can understand why you might spend a bit more time at home after that. You note these things and move on.

The word is that the number of security incidents is falling but the average severity of the incidents is increasing. The rumour mill has it that there will be an increase in security-related incidents in the New Year. But of course, if you expect it and prepare for it, it might not actually happen. A couple of weeks ago, the F-FDTL (Timorese Army) returned to the streets of Dili with loaded weapons and they are not obliged to take orders from UN police or foreign military. I know this makes some people a bit nervous.

One disconcerting feature that has appeared over the last week or so, is the regular sound of fireworks – some of the home-made variety.  So if it really was gunfire, it would be easy to dismiss it as fireworks and not get excited at all.
I think I have developed a 6th sense. The eyes and ears are on alert for anything out of the ordinary. In general, you are out of trouble if it is more than 100 metres away. You don’t rubber-neck, you just move on. Try not to appear to be Australian, Portuguese or Indonesian. Icelandic is a big winner.

So Santa, I will leave the the full specs for my new digital camera on the fridge door – got it ? Just leave it and move on. Sorry, no gin this year.

Where am I ?

I asked myself this question last weekend after agreeing to move on from a bar to go to a friend’s place for gin and tonics. And when the tonic ran out, agreeing to replace it with vodka AND thinking it was a good idea.

But I am a map sort of guy and when I arrived, I was frustrated by the lack of a good up-to-date map of Dili and key locations. Whenever a new location appears on the scene, its always “its 200 metres west of such and such across from the so and so”. And in reality, it is south-west and 400 metres.

I always like to know where I am (last Saturday excluded) so I have chipped away at working on a landmark locator using Google Earth. I am publishing it for the benefit of the geographically challenged and newbies fresh off the boat. (I’d still like to say it is my baby, so don’t rip it off and call it your own.)

You will find it in my “Other Stuff” section at the top of dili-gence as “Dili via Google Earth” or by going here which are really the same place. I am happy to receive any comments and additions and I will keep it up-to-date. Enjoy … and no jokes about my personal hobbies.

Holidays, tourism & why ?

Yeah, I did briefly sneak out of Dili a few weeks back to complete my dental stuff, but am now genuinely on a break with no other reason than to do something different and try a new set of batteries.

Bali sounds great but it has fascinated me just how different it feels from earlier in the year when compared to Dili, Bali was like going to the big city.  This time it felt stranger to be going to another Asian country, with similar (perhaps cooler) weather and seaside nearby.  The food and beer is cheaper, the shopping options infinitely greater and no security issues (that I am aware of).

The Bali beaches are wider (but darker and finer sand) and it struck me as curious that one would even want to hire a deck chair and umbrella to go to the beach.  And spend all day turning away watch vendors, wood carving vendors, pedicurists, manicurists, foot massagers, fruit sellers, bracelet floggers and the odd beggar.

You get none of this on a Dili beach (or I don’t).  I can cycle down to the Christo Rei area in Dili, park myself outside “Sol e Mar”, order my fruit juice and camp on the beach with barely a soul to bother me.  I once thought the same thing about beaches on the New South Wales coast of Australia where I used to be almost offended if I (& accompanying group) did not have an entire beach to oneself.

I noticed a few brave souls daring to pooh-pooh convention and stretch out on their own towels – such reactionaries.

Anyway, Dili can do similar things if it tried.  The city beaches are no good but over the other side of Christo Rei, the beaches are better, cleaner and there is no-one around.  But I hope I never see deck chairs on the beach – leave that to hotel pools.

Atauro Island

Over the Easter weekend, we went with a group to Atauro Island – the large island dominating the view to the north of Dili. Despite getting a lot of “stick” from my crook tooth, I decided that suffering in Atauro was probably going to be little different from suffering at home here. (Note : no medical or dental services were expected to be available in Dili or Atauro over Easter.)

Atauro is 30kms to the north of Dili and covers about 140 square kms. As I read the Lonely Planet guide, Atauro (unlike TL itself) is more Protestant than Catholic. The biggest village Vila (where we stayed at the Eco Lodge) has an Assembly of God church and we heard regular singing coming from that general direction.

There is a short narrow 4km stretch of bitumen road from the small wharf at Beloi (where we were deposited) to Vila. My guess is that the island has about 3 or 4 motor vehicles and maybe 10 motor cycles.

We took a fast “dive” boat to get from Dili to Beloi which took about 1 hour 15 minutes across the Wetar Strait. We saw none of the hoped-for whales or dolphins on the way, but many flying fish. Wetar Strait is well over 3kms in depth at its deepest points and is said to be popular with submarines making their way from the Pacific to the Indian oceans.

The Eco Lodge is about the only formal accommodation available. It is straw huts by the sea, no refrigeration, limited lighting and no sign of radio or TV. Simple beds with mosquito nets were provided and 3 meals a day at around US$15 per day plus the US$24 per day accommodation. They provided some quite respectable long-drop toilets (with toilet paper) and a quite nice mandi (ie large water basin with pitcher for washing purposes).

The sea is only metres away and most of the time, as hot as a warm bath.

The standard means of getting around is by foot and one of the planned activities was a hike up to the top of Mt.Manucoco (995m). Of the larger group that set off for the top, only about 1/4 made it all the way. It took them 9 hours in 35 to 40 degree heat (4 hours to the top) with insufficient water by any measure. I was the last of the pikers to pull out after 2 hours walking uphill on small rough mountain tracks. My pathetic excuse was the general malaise caused by my chronic tooth problem. The other half was a member of the small group that made it to the top.

As for cost, 2 nights plus all food and transport came in at around US$125 per head. The only way to do it cheaper would have been to take the once a week ferry from Dili each Saturday. Private charter is the only other option.

And the sunset that greeted us on our return to Dili harbour was one to die for.

Although it was a couple of days away from AC, it was extremely relaxing and stress-free. No newspapers, radio, TV, traffic, noise … it was also a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of Dili. Hey, did I just say that ?


By coincidence, we were in Bali during Nyepi – Bali’s day of silence. We were warned. It would be quiet and we MUST be quiet. From 6am Thursday 30 March to 6am Friday 31 March, no lights, no street lights, no traffic, no music, no TV, no talking, no going out, no leaving the premises.

The night before Nyepi, we went into Denpasar and watched the ogoh ogoh monster ceremony where evil paper mache monsters parade the streets to represent the driving away of evil spirits. The crowds were huge, the atmosphere light and completely non-threatening (and not a drop of alcohol to be seen).

On the next night, I thought a little quiet TV would go un-noticed but the tiniest of light leaks was spotted by the local nyepi squadron who patrol the street to make sure everyone complies. They beat on the door. I turned off the TV. It felt just like Dili. I taped the black plastic bags over the bedroom window (just like Dili) and remained in bed for 12 hours.

Next morning, it was business as usual.

For an explanation of Nyepi, try :

Bali Break

After a few months of domestic hell with water problems and almost daily trooping in and out of “tradesmen” (I use that term quite loosely), an opportunity came up to get away for a breather, courtesy of the other half’s employer.

I imparted the USD284 for a return flight to Bali on Merpati. One hour and forty minutes later, one is in Bali and although I have been to Bali a couple of times before, the feeling this time was quite different. It really felt like the “boy from the bush” returning to the big city. It felt cosmopolitan, the traffic was awful, the shopping opportunities endless (by comparison), the normality gob-smacking. And cheap. Most things are 1/3 of the price of Dili.

We stayed with a hybrid Indonesian/western family and ate fabulous Indonesian home-cooked meals morning, noon and night. I gutsed myself. I did no exercise. And I came back to Dili weighing another 3kgs lighter. I guess it was the sambal* morning, noon and night.

I went with an empty suitcase as one of the main missions was to buy a few household items sadly missing from our house. We came back with plumbing fittings, telephones, cables, bedspreads, shower curtains, cushions, cushion covers, kitchenware and I nabbed a new LCD monitor as my poor old 11-year old monitor seemed to lose focus and intensity after 5 months in a hot, humid shipping container.

The LCD monitor savings over Dili prices effectively paid for my airfare. I could get used to this.

* sambal equals crushed chili often mixed with shrimp paste or lime juice but almost always hair-raising.


In an expat environment like this, regular farewells are frequent. Most expats are here 6 months, 1 year, 2 years and in a few cases, a bit more than that.

I have been to 2 such farewells this week. One for a couple who have basically been here before and after the troubles of 1999/2000. Some people just get hooked. Others do their stuff and move on.

Tonight, I went to a farewell across the other side of town. For a reason that probably would escape most, I decided to cycle it. It was fine getting there just before sunset. But it sure was interesting coming home at 11pm.

There is hardly a car on the road after 9pm, so cycling is not a problem. But you have to remember the location of potholes otherwise life is not worth living. I did have my flashing red light on the rear but didn’t bother with a front light. Thats not to say that the street lighting is any good, thats more a statement of my confidence in the road ahead.

It took about 20 minutes to get home. On about 3 occasions, voices from the dark yelled out “bo noite” (ie good evening). I waved back. It really is not a problem here. A bit of common sense and you can feel perfectly safe. Yep, there is a purpose to drinking Melbourne Bitter – makes the ride home so much more enjoyable.

See ya, Andrew and Jo.

A Big Weekend

I needed it. Although it was meant to be the day we moved into our house after 5 1/2 months, being the caring and sharing guy that I am, I opted for a weekend away where alcohol played a major part in proceedings.

So I headed off on the weekend away, taking my bicycle and sleeping gear for a weekend away with the hash house harriers. The group of about 30 went to Gleno which is a village about 50 kms from Dili. The roads are not that great so it took about an hour and a half to get there.

Despite the “hash’s” dubious reputation, we stayed at an orphanage in Gleno run by an Australian in his spare time. You have to be in awe of these people who set out to do this. There are tons of kids here parentless, courtesy of the turmoil over the last 25 years, famine or just plain old poor health.

So the hash goes there, sleeps rough, brings tons of food and other stuff, consumes what they need and leaves the rest. This feeds these kids for weeks. The guy who runs the place is extremely grateful. We have a great time and feel good about the whole thing.

On the Saturday afternoon, we did a ~10km run in the mountains which was absolutely magnificent. To be honest, only about 10 people did the run with the rest opting for a more casual walk.

At dusk I decided to have a wash in the mandi (Indonesian style bathroom – lots of tiles and lots of water splashed around the place). I slipped big time and landed flat on my back on the tiles. I curled up into a fetal position for 5 minutes while I got my shite together. I have massive bruising of the lower back and arms, but I survived without critical damage. No, I was not drunk, but who will believe me ?

For a reason that escapes me, Fretilin had a big party in Gleno on the Saturday and graciously allowed the electricity to run all night instead of stopping at midnight. The locals took advantage of this and partied until dawn. After a 10 km run and a number of beers, and wishing to remain compus for the following day’s bike ride, being kept awake all night with (to my tastes anyway) music to die by playing all night, and dogs fighting, and the early morning roosters crowing and the door creaking every time some one went to the toilet. Well, I was knackered when I got up.

On the Sunday, I was part of a group of 7 who rode bicycles back to Dili. It took us around 3 hours with plenty of ups and some cheek-flapping downhill runs of awesome proportions. It was a blast. And absolutely magnificent for 50 kms.

The perfect introduction to a week of full-time box unpacking, swearing and house problems.

Crossing the blockade by bicycle

Of all the Presidential visits to TL, perhaps one of the biggest has to be for the Portuguese. They may not have been here first, and may not have even been the most recent colonial masters, but they still hold big sway.

So the Man is here all week and you know about it. As there is no other alternative, he and his entourage are staked out at my old digs at the Hotel Timor, except the Prez is in the Presidential suite at the other end of the corridor.

The lads decided that it was a good idea to blockade off the streets around the Hotel and also around the government buildings. Now for the car driver, this is a pain in the ring.

However, for the ageing cyclist (with a bomb-shaped backpack on his back), it is not a problem. I tried my luck and bowled past the military guys with their Uzzis or Kalashnikovs or whatever. I tested the water … not a problem.

For several days, this has been great. For once, hoovering down past the Hotel Timor on my own, with not a car in sight and not a security man even winked. I guess white faces are a valuable ticket. I even parked my bicycle at the front door of the hotel (unlocked) had lunch and headed of again 1 hour later. Nope, no bomb squads checking my cogs or my derailleur.

A short sweet moment of cycling victory … even if the blockade only consisted of traffic cones.