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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Timor-Leste day 2

Welcome to Timor Leste!
Our first day in Timor-Leste began with breakfast at Bali Rani Hotel at 6:30am. There was a mix of eastern and western food, including sausages, pancakes, eggs, fried noodles, juices, coffee, tea, etc. We left for the airport at 7:45am. We would fly into Dili via Merpati Airlines (a sister company of Garuda Airlines) MZ 8480.

We arrived in Dili at 11:45am. The first thing we had to do was purchase our tourist visa from a container-booth a few metres from the runway. It took nearly an hour to get that done. By then, visitors who were leaving Dili had already boarded the plane that brought us here, and it had flown back to Bali! Fortunately, clearing customs and immigration was a quick and painless affair. I overheard a senior officer tell the men who were attending to us that they could close up after us. Apparently, the airport shuts down after the Merpati flights!

By the time we emerged from the airport, the rest of the group had collected the Toyota Pajero landrovers. We headed straight for Hotel Audian. The drive was an eye-opening one: there are no road markings or traffic lights! Yet the vehicles just move smoothly. We saw a lot of children and teenagers selling foodstuffs on the roadside. This would prove to be a very common sight. As we drove along the coast, we passed the embassies of Brazil, U.S.A., Japan, Korea and others, which were done up very differently (richly) from neighbouring buildings.

We arrived at the hotel at 1.45pm. After filling out the paper registration forms, we went to our rooms. The hotel had apparently messed up their reservations, so we had single rooms instead of doubles, which was fine by me. The room consisted of a bed, dresser, cupboard, and attached bathroom. After putting down our things, we decided to explore our surroundings. We crossed the road, into an alley, and found a group of small children huddled near their home. When Kevin approached them to take photos, they ran away. But an adult nearby knew we were harmless and coaxed them out. In the end, Kevin managed to get some good pictures of them.

We then had lunch at the hotel's resutaurant, which was really just like a cafeteria, albeit with waitresses in non-uniform T-shirts and bermudas. We had Hong Kong noodles, which were saltier and darker than expected. Over lunch, we chatted with Pastors Al and Tim, who are from America and attached to a Singaporean church for a while.

While some people headed for meetings at WorldVision (a Christian NGO that provides development aid) and Alola Foundation (a women and children's charity founded by the First Lady), Kevin, Alex and I joined Al and Tim to visit the Christa Rae, or Statue of Jesus, at Cape Fatucama. This is the second largest such statue in the world, after the one in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. According to Tim, it was built as a gift by Garuda Airlines to the Timorese for Pope John Paul II's visit.

Unfortunately, the place has fallen into neglect and disrepair. Weeds and overgrowth have taken over the land. Stair railings threatened to fall off at the slightest touch. There were hundreds of steps to climb to the top, but it took only about 20 minutes. On the other hand, I felt nauseous due to the anti-malarial pills that I had just taken. Along the way, we saw bronze plaques that depict the 12 moments leading to Jesus' crucifixion. There are also two open spaces, the larger of which was used to hold the hundreds of people who had turned up for mass which the Pope conducted.

It was hot and dry that day, but there were some welcome respites. Given the altitude and proximity to the coast, there were cool breezes almost at all times. And great views.

The statue itself is probably three storeys tall. But like I said, it had fallen into disrepair, and parts of the globe at the base of the statue threatened to drop off. We took photos, admired the view, and prayed for the country and people. And after that moment, we made our way back down to the dirt car park.

Tim wanted to visit the Santa Cruz Cemetery, which was the site of a fatal riot in the late 1990s. According to him, a young boy was being buried, but somehow it led to a bloody showdown between the Timorese and the Indonesian military, which were the occupational force at that time.

The cemetery is almost right smack in the middle of Dili, but it still took us a while to find it. Even passersby weren't too sure. Along the way, we stopped by the roadside market, where women and children were selling fresh produce. We didn't buy anything, though. We took pictures, gave a girl a chocolate bar, then went on our way.

We finally arrived at our destination at about 5:30pm. There are a lot of graves, mostly of young children who barely made it past a few years. While we were there, a family was conducting a funeral or wake. They were dressed in black and the women wore black bandanas.

We returned to the hotel at 6pm. At 6:30pm, we met in the hotel lobby. The teenage daughter of the owner, who is Singaporean, was there and the few of us chatted with her in Mandarin. Apparently, she's lived in Dili for quite a while and visits Singapore occasionally. But she still knows the main places in the Lion City.

Dinner was at Golden Star Restaurant, just across from the hotel. Like most restaurants, this one is Chinese-owned, though they also served pseudo-western food. Three visitors from WorldVision joined us. The set dinner consisted of Portugese sausage, fried squid, steamed fish fillet, black pepper beef, beef rendang, fried prawns, mixed sauteed vegetables, ice-cream and coffee or tea.

Over dinner, we talked about WorldVision's involvement in Timor Leste. The NGO works with villages in development programmes, like building wells. All projects are done together so that the villages have a sense of ownership. A wise move too, otherwise the Timorese might just take things for granted.

We returned to the hotel after dinner. My church group met in Kevin's room for a short meeting, where we talked about what we were going to do tomorrow at the village visit. We agreed to get a detailed story from a specific villager to use as a case study of life in Timor Leste.

I returned to my room at about 10:15pm. While bathing, I made the mistake of standing with my back to the door, so that the shower sprayed at it. But the gap at the base of the sliding door allowed the water to flow out to my room. Luckily, there wasn't much, but I still had to watch where I stepped. (It didn't dry until late the next day.)

While waiting for my hair to dry, I watched the beginning of "Alex and Emma". Then fatigue overcame me and I went to sleep.

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