Traditional Beehive Huts found in West Timor
It all started with a dragon. A Komodo dragon to be exact. My mother somehow survived her encounter with the deadliest creature I had ever laid eyes on. Not only had she stared face-to-face with a deadly Komodo, but she was ACTUALLY enjoying her mis-adventures with me.
My mother is not usually an adventurous-type. In fact, up until I moved overseas to work internationally with horses, her travels had been mostly to resorts. Maybe it was the sun getting to her brain, maybe it was the fact that she recently hit the big milestone of 50 years old and felt she had nothing to lose, or maybe she was tired of listening to MY adventures and was ready to collect a few stories of her own. Whatever the reason, I saw a window of opportunity.
“Timor-Leste is only an hour flight from here,” I casually mention to her as I scroll on the map of my phone. “Of course, we can’t fly directly to Timor-Leste because we’d have to fly back to Denpasar and pay over $3,000 for a roundtrip, per person… BUT,” I grinned, a plan hatching, “West Timor can be flown to from Ende, a small town here on Flores and we could try and cross into Timor-Leste by land.”
My mother raised an eyebrow, not entirely sure what she was about to agree to. She pursed her lips in thought, as if weighing the options carefully. “Let’s do it.”
I book a domestic flight to Ende, then to West Timor, sealing the deal.
You might be wondering, about now, where the hell is Timor-Leste?
It is an Island near Australia and Indonesia. In fact, East Timor, or Timor-Leste used to be a part of Indonesia, until they recently got their independence a little over 10 years ago at the time of our trip. (They became a UN Nation in 2002!)
Fun Quiz! Can you guess the different flags of the world, including Timor-Leste's? Take the World Flag Quiz (Hard)
The main language spoken in East Timor is actually Portuguese and it is one of the few Asian nations that is predominately Christians--next to the Philippines. It was nice for us since we just so happened to be traveling on Christmas Day, although the weather looked far from a “White Christmas.” Instead of snow we were sweating through our tank tops and blasting the A/C. Our drive from Balibo to Dili did show us countless makeshift “Christmas Ornaments” outside of people’s homes including my favorite: an attempted Christmas Tree made entirely out of old beer bottles.
The strangest thing my mother and I would discover is that the main currency used is the US Dollar. We would learn many things about East Timor, but first we had the small task of actually GETTING THERE.
Ende Airport on Flores Island, Indonesia.
It was one of the SMALLEST airports I have ever seen!
We arrived in Ende with the promise of finding the only Embassy for Timor-Leste. Upon arrival, through word of mouth we were soon pointed to a city in West Timor, which is still occupied by Indonesia. We jaunted off to West Timor and found the consulate but after arriving at 4 in the afternoon we were turned away, “because it’s closed.” We returned the next day, hoping to make our visa application to enter Timor Leste but after a huge drama from the one and only person working at the consulate—a very disgruntled woman—we discovered that there was no one on site who had permission to grant us a visa. In fact, it was closed for Christmas and the person we needed to speak to was in Bali. (Oh, the irony!)
After smooth talking we managed to get the man’s email address and we sent over our visa applications to him at the embassy in Bali. We were told the process could take up to three days but West Timor was taking a toll on us (that’s another story entirely) so we decided to hire a guide and head from the west side all the way to the border in the east.
Nimrod (far right) Photo Bombing our photo with the band.
The band was actually very talented! Nimrod, was not.
Nimrod was meant to be our “guide,” but we would find out the hard way that he was not an actual guide and was referred to us—as a joke, I’m sure—by one of the local guides who was unable to attend. (Think of Mr. Bean as a tour guide and multiply it by 100.) For the purpose of this story every time you read the word: NIMROD you must SHOUT IT IN YOUR HEAD (or out loud, whatever calls to you.)
A guide was deemed necessary because the headhunting tribes that still exist in West Timor (though they don’t head hunt anymore) do not allow foreigners permission to enter their villages unless invited by the Chief and must be escorted by a local guide. It is also a hard and fast rule that in order to be welcomed into these villages you MUST offer the chief and men the local betel-nut for them to chew, which we were informed would be the responsibility of our local guide to provide.
Here are some things NIMROD did instead:
- Upon agreeing over the phone to organize our trip to the border of East Timor, he fails to organize a vehicle and driver. He actually showed up at our hotel and scrambled for hours, with us sitting in the lobby, trying to organize a driver and car.
- Upon discovering he had no phone credits to make calls in order to arrange said driver, begins his quest to find phone credits wasting another hour or so of precious daylight.
- After organizing a vehicle and driver (which I ended up haggling for) we first must stop at his home in his village so he may “pack his bag for the long trip.” (This is where my patience begins to drop off dramatically, I mean you seriously couldn’t do that BEFORE coming to our hotel?!)
- Thirty minutes into our “tour” NIMROD gets sick and throws up IN THE CAR because he refuses to let the driver pull over. We then had to find him a disposable bag to allow him to get sick while trying to keep ourselves from getting sick. He then rolls down the window and eventually passes out asleep as we continue driving.
- After driving for an eternity and neither the driver nor we having a clue where the villages are that we wanted to stop, Nimrod finally wakes. He then attempts to find a village.
- We eventually find a village-who knows if it’s the right one or not-and the chief welcomes us. NIMROD forgets the betel-nut and offends the chief.
Repeat this a few more times. We stopped at a few villages and saw the beehive huts but NIMROD failed to give the chiefs the betel-nut and so we kept our stays short.
Nimrod Photo-bombing our moment with the lovely ladies feeding us at a local street food stall.
Nimrod also had this habit of Photo Bombing EVERY photo I attempted to take. It was uncanny. EVERY PHOTO of my mother, myself or us together has NIMROD in it. Every. Single. One.
Me: Oh, a man carrying a basket of wood on his head! -Click- DAMMIT, NIMROD!
At one point the entire village gathered round for a group photo with my mom and me and NIMROD was talking on the phone. I thought, phew at least he’s too busy to be in ONE PHOTO. I. Was. Wrong. He is in the group photo TALKING ON THE PHONE. (True Story.) DAMMIT, NIMROD!
My mother and I finally arrive in the hellish border town between West Timor and East Timor. We found a “hotel” (it was a dump) and stored our bags. After discovering for the first time in weeks REAL FOOD (we found a KFC) we slept in our hotel. We carefully instructed NIMROD to tell the driver that first thing at 7am we wanted him to drop us off at the border so that we could try to walk to the Timor-Leste border crossing. We had NO PLAN for a vehicle on the other side. In fact, we had only gotten enough internet to book a few nights at the Balibo Fort Hotel (who later stole from our hotel room while the owner of the hotel invited us to their birthday party.)
NIMROD and the driver pick us up, but he forgot to tell the driver to fill up on fuel. DAMMIT, NIMROD! There wasn’t a fuel station and so our driver had to find a local shop with Coca-Cola bottles filled with petrol to pour into the tank.
Nimrod TALKING ON THE PHONE and photo bombing us... again.
We arrive at the border and are so happy to say goodbye to NIMROD. The Indonesian customs stamps us out and asks to take a photo with us. The only reason NIMROD is not able to photobomb this photo is the fact that the men in uniforms (who have guns I might add) hand the camera to NIMROD to take the photo of us. (Should have thought of that in the first place…)
We walk to the Timor Leste side only to discover they don’t open their borders for another hour. We eventually show them our visas, which we thankfully got in our email inbox the previous night, and we walk into Timor-Leste!
I wheel mom’s huge suitcase behind me as I find two men on Vespa’s. I begin to haggle with them to drive us to this Balibo Fort Hotel (which they’d never heard of). I bartered a price and my mom loads up—suitcase and all—on the back of this Vespa with a tiny man driving her. Scooty Bike Taxi to Balibo Fort: $5. The look on my mom’s face as she zipped around on the back of a scooty bike clutching her suitcase…priceless.
The moral of the story: Overlanding to Timor-Leste, although funny to look back on now, was a trying adventure—especially for my mom! Nimrod was the most useless “guide” I’ve ever experienced and in a weird way I will miss…DAMMIT NIMROD!