Diving into Timor-Leste—Page 2
Story & photos by Michael Buckley

One night in Dili
Mick warns me not to venture out at night in Dili—at least not without a secure car and driver. By way of explanation, he points to a car parked below us that is dented and dinged—from locals throwing rocks, he says. So of course, I go out one night, using my trusty rented bicycle as a fast get-away vehicle. At dusk, I bicycle off to an open-air spot along the esplanade where operators grill chicken, buffalo-meat, and fish on skewers, with chili sauce applied. Three blocks away, bicycling down side-alleys, I encounter tin shacks, scrawny roosters, and pigs picking away at piled-up garbage. Malnutrition and tuberculosis are big problems here.

I pedal on to flashy Timor Plaza, to the country's first real movie theater. On the big screen tonight is Bloodshot, a documentary about Timor-Leste's battle with Indonesia to gain independence. The film is from the point-of-view of three Western journalists who went undercover to meet guerrilla fighters—and to record massacres. One of the journalists, Kirsty Sword, ended up marrying guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao.

UN rule of thumb: wait until at least a third of a nation's population has been massacred before lifting a finger to take action. The UN's mandate at its foundation in 1945 was to prevent another holocaust like that of the Jews in Germany, but time and time again the United Nations has failed to step in. In East Timor's case, the UN stepped in some 20 years too late—after half the population was killed, tortured, raped or simply disappeared by the occupying force of Indonesia.

On hand to introduce the documentary is British journalist Max Stahl, who on 12 November 1991 crouched down in Santa Cruz Cemetery and filmed a bloody massacre of peaceful demonstrators by Indonesian troops. His smuggled videotapes of the massacre led to a major shift of world opinion, and led finally to UN action to hold a referendum in Timor itself—which precipitated another massacre.

canoe fishing

A Strange Species at Atauro
With hopes of seeing signs that a massacre of large marine life was not complete, I set out for the island of Atauro, to the north of Dili. Atauro is reached by an hour-long trip in a powerboat across a three-km-deep trench. And on this passage, we finally encounter the big ones: several species of dolphin cavorting, plus a marine species new to me: the melon-headed whale, with a head shaped … like a melon. Chancing across such an unusual species alone makes the trip worthwhile. I am ecstatic.

That euphoria does not last long. Out taking photographs at dawn next day, I spot three outrigger boats returning from night-fishing. I move in to get photos of the fish being offloaded at the shore, but there are none. As the nets are unraveled and folded up, it is apparent they are empty. One net has trapped a tiny pathetic fish. A fisherman's son, no more than five years old, is examining the net with a blank stare. He will not be able to pursue the traditional profession of fishing on Atauro. His future probably lies in working at a place like Barry's Eco-resort, which caters to visiting snorkelers from Dili.

Man selling turtle eggs on boulevard right near dive operator

Barry, a transplant from Australia, tells me that conservation solutions have been tried. Like the setting-up of marine-protected areas at Atauro to act as fish nurseries to regenerate fish stocks. But locals did not seem to accept that concept: they just kept on fishing till stocks collapsed. It's Sunday morning, and the locals will soon flock to church, where they will sing their hearts out—and no doubt pray earnestly for miracles to do with fish.

Lining the Avenida de Portugal on Dili's prestigious oceanfront is a string of embassies. Why so many, so grandiose? Courting the UN vote probably has a lot to do with it. On this esplanade, I wish there was an Embassy of the Ocean, an organization to prevent the outright slaughter of marine life, and to ensure fishing remains sustainable. Divers are the ocean's greatest ambassadors in this regard. But in Timor-Leste's case, it seems the marine tipping-point has already come and gone. As it has in far too many places around the world. The big fish have turned into ghosts—or whatever the marine equivalent of ghosts is.

Young women in traditional dress at a ceremony

Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, is linked by direct flights from Indonesia (Bali, Jakarta), and from Australia (Darwin). Timor-Leste exudes the charm of a little-visited nation, with not a single 7-Eleven, Starbucks, or McDonald's visible on the horizon. But travel arrangements are surprisingly easy: you get a 30-day visa on arrival; the currency is US dollars. If you like coral gardens and macro life, Timor-Leste is great for diving and snorkeling. If you want to see larger fish, you need to access remote dive-sites like the northeast tip of Atauro, or Jaco Island—sites that are prone to currents. Getting to these places requires a dive-camp expedition of several days with chartered transport, carrying all dive tanks, equipment and food. Try to join some NGOs if they have organized such a trip, usually on weekends.

Michael Buckley is a frequent traveler to southeast-Asian and Himalayan regions. His ebooks are available through Smashwords.com—just search: buckeroo. Via the Smashwords site you can download a free ebook, Meltdown in Tibet. Buckley is author of a number of books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com).

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Related stories:

Swimming with Spotty Monsters in the Philippines by Michael Buckley
Bringing Coral Reefs Back From the Dead by Jeff Greenwald
On Safari in Sri Lanka by Michael Buckley
Scars of the Wild by Stephen Markley

See other Asia travel stories from the archives

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