May began and ended with trouble. As soon as we boarded the Bukit Siguntang at 23:00 hrs. in Makassar, we finally understood what that likeable member of the crew that brought us from Kalimantan, had meant by saying "enjoy that trip". It is unimaginable the chaos that was this boat when we boarded. Thousands of people occupying every corner of it. The overcrowded communal bedrooms, crammed with people sleeping next to each other, intoxicating cigarette smoke floating in the air, mountains of bags, packages, boxes with fruits and all kinds of crap. People crowded into every available corner outside the bedroom, in hallways, stairs, lying on cardboard or empty rice bags to separate them from a grimy floor, crying children and babies everywhere, bathrooms giving off corrosive smell…you can imagine, no? Surely not. The only spot we found was on the floor of the corridor leading to the kitchen, a permanent transit space with a bullhorn blasting announcements directly above us with a piercing volume, especially at 4.30 am during the first daily call to pray. There, in that oppressive space, we spent the next 36 hrs. sailing to Kupang in West Timor.
The PELNI are a world in themselves. Today they have been reduced to the transportation of the poorest, because the number of low cost airlines operating today made possible that many people have access to buy a plane ticket. The PELNI are slow, to use them requires planning well in advance and there are islands that only have service once or twice a month. Sometimes it can take up to a week to get from one point to another, but this is the only means of transport by which the greatest number of Indonesians can move from island to island. Perhaps the biggest annoyance is not the overcrowding or repulsive food included with the ticket or the ghostly bathrooms, but unfortunately, the necessity to keep an eye on the belongings because there are always crooks poking around the property of others. Having said that, most people, as always, were very friendly and generous and helped us as they could so that we had a more comfortable space.
Here, a short video briefing of what it is a trip on a nearly full PELNI :
After 36 hrs. and two stops, we arrived to Kupang very badly asleep, with every bone aching from sleeping on the floor and for having been continuously and abruptly awakened by the screams coming out of that shitty megaphone making irrelevant announcements, but happy to have left that damn ship in a spectacular day. The island of Timor is directly in front of the northern coast of Australia, not many miles away and this gives it an incredible micro-climate. The winds from the Outback ( Australian Desert ) transform the originally humid tropical climate in a dry one. It was a real pleasure to pedal and, for the first time in a long time, without feeling the body sticky all the time. It was hot and the sun was strong, but at least for me, it became more tolerable by being dry.
Kupang is an ugly city, located on the westernmost tip of the island, but enclosed by turquoise seas and mountains of exotic forms. As soon as we started pedaling out of the harbor, Julia began to feel extremely weak, with shining eyes, sleep and fever. It was quite possible that the overwhelming trip in the PELNI and the lack of rest made her unbalanced.
We made the effort to go straight to the consulate of Timor Leste to process our visas and then, we went directly to the guesthouse, where she spent three days sleeping almost continuously, with fever peaks mitigated with Paracetamol. I began to suspect something more serious than simple fatigue, but on the fourth day, Julia was relatively well and we started off towards the border of Timor Leste. There had been barely 10 km when she had already lost all the strength and I had not doubts anymore: it had to be dengue fever. Our problem was that we had to get to the border and we only had 4 days for our visas to expire. So we decided to put the bikes in a bus to make the 300 km trip because anyway, we were going to be able to cycle them in our way back since there was no other road.
At a stop for lunch, a young mother with her son approached me looking worried and said: "your wife (in Indonesia we say to be married) does not look good, she is sick, isn't she?" I said: "yes and I suspect that she has dengue fever". She worried and told me that if we did not have a place to sleep in Atambua, the border town, we could stay at her house, and so it was. Sinema, her charming husband Wilko and their three beautiful children welcomed us into their home. From that day onward, Sinema was a mother who ran for us, and specifically for Julia, from side to side, moving heaven and earth until her recovery. We drove to the hospital where dengue fever was confirmed by a doctor. There, they wanted Julia to be admitted to the hospital paying an amount equal to 100 US dollars per day. But Sinema suspected that price was way too high and took us to a prestigious family doctor friend who attended Julia free and recommended the typical dengue treatment of rest and regular hydration. Meanwhile, Sinema took me to the markets to buy fruits for Julia, prepared special meals and did all she could to get Julia back to a healthy condition. It was a slow process since dengue produces an imbalance in the blood that takes several days to normalize. Two blood tests per day were needed to follow the evolution of the disease closely.
But migration problems know no disease and we either had to leave the country or start paying fines. I went to the immigration office and Sinema accompanied me to see how to fix the problem. There was no other solution than to extend our visa or leave the country on time, but to extend our visa a local sponsor was required. Sinema thought about it, consulted it with Wilko and both, decided to be our sponsor preventing us from having to leave the country under these conditions
This is a huge responsibility for an Indonesian. When they decided to be our sponsor, anything that happens to us or we do wrong, will fall on them. Even so, they decided to do it and our immigration problem was solved.
Sinema and Wilko were for 7 days our angels, our family itself. Not knowing much about us, looked after us and treated us like we were part of their own family. Indonesian people act this way and there are no words to describe it. While in the West we lose these qualities by becoming more selfish, individualistic and self-centered day by day, here, fortunately, the most essential values of our humanity still survive.
We lived as a family with them and we will always be eternally grateful for their love, affection and their selfless hospitality.
Our plans to reach Timor Leste were canceled and although we wanted to go, we really wanted to do it out of necessity, and not because it is a country with something specifically attractive to visit.
Timorese really are more or less the same people on both sides of the border (but obviously the separatists will deny it outright), share the Catholic religion, the Portuguese ancestors and customs.Still, in 2000, pro-separatist Indonesians created enough reasons to annihilate each other and achieve the independence of Timor Leste.
Geographically the island is very similar on both sides, so we have not lost something unique. After a week with our host family and Julia with their blood back to normal, we started our way back pedaling toward Kupang in this fascinating island, so unlike anything previously seen, since the climate is not the only change but also the ethnicity. There are two major Timorese groups: those of Portuguese ancestors, who follow the Catholic religion with features more similar to the Indonesian and those of Papuan origin who maintain ancestral traditions, are animists, until recently were still headhunters and still live prehistorically in their ume kebubu.
The similarity in features of these Timorese with Aboriginal Australians is pretty amazing and they are closer to them than to the Indonesian - Malaysian - Filipino ethnicity.
Because of the dengue setback, we ran out of time to travel through the remote path I had planned on the island, but even so, following the main path, the melting pot is fascinating to say the least. The ume kebubu are everywhere and with them, a funny thing happens. The Indonesian government considers a threat this kind of places and builds sordid houses of cement blocks for the people. But local people considered the government construction dangerous and therefore, they build a new ume kebubu behind the cement block house and live in it. There is nothing more futile than trying to kill an ancient tradition, no? And I'm glad that this is so.
The ume kebubu have no ventilation at all, its small door is one meter high and its shaped honeycomb straw roof just manages to reach the floor. Its construction and design allow to keep it cool inside when it's hot outside and warm inside when it's cold outside. Inside, people hang corn to dry from their roofs. It's hard to believe that such perfect and old examples of vernacular architecture still survive in the twenty-first century and people still live in them like they did hundreds of years ago.
The locals are incredibly cheerful, full of life, smiling with their torn mouths, stained red with black broken teeth by the addiction to what they call siripina, a mixture of betel nut with herbs, wrapped in a sheet of banana leaves placed between the gums and the inside of the cheeks and then chewed. It is almost exactly the same as the Indian paan. Like there, people seem to have their mouth painted with lipstick outside and bleeding inside, although it is neither one nor the other, but the color and texture of the siripina. It is not a drug, but it has a mild narcotic effect and people become addicted to chew it all day. The remains are everywhere on the floor, people spit it and everywhere you can see the patches of spittle that look more like those of a colony of tuberculosis patients spitting blood. The effect in the mouth is not for the squeamish. A very cheerful lady, broke in laughter while I was taking pictures of her and unwittingly, knife in hand, gave me a smile that could terrify the very mother of Norman Bates in Psycho.
The road took us over town after town. The surroundings of Kefa (Kefamenanu), Niki Niki, Soe, are an open-air museum of fascinating people, wearing traditional dresses and govern their life according to the same habits of hundreds of years ago.
The interior of West Timor is very hilly and we had to go up and down constantly. But we had had a good rest and while Julia was still in recovery, could cope very well with the road. The magnificent dry weather coupled with the high altitude in which the villages are located, made hings much more comfortable for us. The nights were cool without being cold and the days were warm without being stifling. It was a real pleasure.
After three long days of rolling, we reached the final descent to Kupang over the end of the day, with a colorful extravaganza in the mountainous landscape of Timor.
We arrived in Kupang late in the evening, ready to eat the same delicious dish I had eaten every night on the street market, during our first stop there: a delicious grilled fish, fresh from the sea, cooked and seasoned on the spot. Accompanied by a soursop smoothie, a fruit that became almost an addiction for me. A delight like no other. We had to gather a lot of energy and will power, since the next day we would have to board once again the damn Bukit Sigungtang, this time for just 18 hours, on the way to Maumere, in Flores Island. It was time to start making the route of the volcanoes.
* PELNI stands for P.T.Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia (The National Indonesian Shipping Company)