I hadn’t ever really considered travelling to Timor-Leste when day dreaming about the holidays I would take, but when a friend said, “Hey, want to do a 5 day mountain bike race with me in East Timor?” I said “Heck yes”. I have to admit I was ignorant of almost everything to do with Timor-Leste, it simply hadn’t registered in my mind. I knew vague things, like oil disputes and that there was a violent history, the Balibo 5, but I hadn’t ever taken the time to learn about this country. Heck, I didn’t even realise it was a country separate from Indonesia and my ignorance in this aspect really humiliated me. I was determined to change this during my visit.
Leading up to the Tour de Timor I did my best to train for it. Living in Sydney, having been hit by a car last year whilst cycling on the roads and having ongoing health issues, I knew it wasn’t going to be stellar preparation. But, I was going to do my best. I knew the best preparation was lots and lots of time riding up hills, but I couldn’t sort that out. Instead, I figured there was more than one way to get ready for the race. I chatted to one of the best trainers and a great friend, Snow, for help. He helped me devise a plan to incorporate weight lifting, high intensity interval training, and endurance all into one program that I would stay interested in. I really enjoyed the training, I pushed harder and got much stronger. Of course this was not quite enough for the tour! I’ll start by saying, it was a tough race, and I knew it was going to be.
I can’t put words or pictures to my experience of the Tour de Timor. I think I experienced the full range of emotions, from feeling defeated to completely unstoppable, from depression to elation. Each city we stayed in showed me something new about Timor-Leste. From the ocean side cities, to up in the rocky mountains, I never would have seen or experienced as much of Timor if I hadn’t done this race. The locals were fascinated with these crazy strangers taking over their schools or halls for the evening, with lots of laughing and photos. I’m sure some locals didn’t appreciate our presence, but I think that’s something you find everywhere. For the most part, it was just as much about the riders and the tour as it was a community event. Growing up in a small country town (population of 5), I know how important these kinds of events are. With music and laughing continuing late into the night for the locals whilst we tried to sleep, I wasn’t anything but happy that they were able to get together and celebrate as my family would do when something big was happening in town.
Though I didn’t speak Portuguese or Tetum, I tried my best to learn useful and polite phrases, and had plenty of fun trying to communicate with some now, great friends. With one Timorese friend, Ana, the extent of our communication was sharing photos on our phones and us saying Cat, Dog, and Snake together in Tetum, followed by collapsing into laughter with each other.
At the end of the ridiculously hot and challenging multi-day race, what other way is there to recover than to relax on a beach? Hol really had us planned to perfection and thus post race we headed to Atauro Island to laze in hammocks, snorkel on perfect reefs, and chase dolphins on the ocean. Atauro Island had a different feel to the mainland, with the most noticeable of which was a feeling of safety. After an interesting night in a poorer part of Dili with a riot happening not far from where we were staying, perhaps safety was at the fore front of my mind.
Throughout the trip, I struggled with stillness. I appreciate the idea of relaxing, of time rocking in a hammock, reading a book or watching the waves roll in, but it is incredibly hard for me to be still, to do nothing. I tried. It wasn’t as relaxing for me as for others, but I enjoyed the different kind of challenge it presented. Many people think you have to do nothing to relax and unwind. I think we are all made differently, so for me, to relax and unwind I like to do stuff. Stuff I enjoy of course, and that stuff happens to be a bit more active than sunbathing. I now know that I require a little more to be content during my down time. As such, for the last 5 days I started running in the mornings, giving me a chance to watch the sunrise, to see more of the island and of Dili when we returned, and to practice my greetings.
Returning to Dili, I had the chance to visit the Resistance Museum. This museum details the 24 year struggle of Timor-Leste against Indonesian occupation. It highlights the roles of international players, including the Australian government, and it is not a museum for the faint hearted. I knew Timor fought for independence, I knew Australia hadn’t quite done the right thing by the Timorese, but I had no idea of how raw, how violent, and how recent this all was. It didn’t hit me until I walked through the exhibits, until I saw the footage of the Santa Cruz massacre, until I read of the loss of 23% of the population in the space of 4 years, until I realised how young this nation was. After visiting the museum, my respect, patience, and understanding of the Timorese people changed. I was truly humbled.
This trip has taught me a lot. Not just about Timor-Leste, but about myself, it highlighted a couple of things. First, I want to learn a language, or, more specifically, I want to travel less ignorantly. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of various languages, but I don’t know any other than English. I feel ignorant. I want to communicate with people and make the effort to do so in their language. I don’t know how much it truly matters, but it feels important to me. Short of learning every language in the world to fulfill this want, I think I will choose one to start with and give it a good shot.
Second, I’m privileged. I have always known how privileged my life has been, and I have felt different levels of appreciation and guilt for it over time. The struggle of the Timorese people, the hopefulness you feel from them about their future, I’ve never had to experience anything on the same level as these people. I’ve never questioned the food on my table, the roof over my head, I’ve never experienced violence such as this, never been forced from my home or to fight for my independence. In the face of it all, these people are still welcoming, still smiling, still happy. Of course there are deep seated issues with PTSD and mental illness after such a horrific and violent history, but the people keep on keeping on.
Though I’d never considered Timor-Leste as a place to visit, I would go back. There are things I didn’t like and things I loved about this country, as with any place you visit. I wouldn’t say no to repeating the Tour de Timor, I’d try my hand at freediving, I’d learn more of the language and get to know the locals a little more in depth, I’d see more of the places I didn’t get to see, I’d visit the people I’ve met on this tour and spend more time with them. Timor-Leste was an enlightening experience, I’d go back again.