Drive-by smok­ing in East Ti­mor

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DO­MINIC DUNNE

DOnot take the bus. You could die. This ad­vice from Alice, a young Ti­morese woman, gives mem­o­men­tary cause for con­cern but her words fall on deaf ears.

I have stayed overnight in a lovely bun­ga­low at Tibar Beach Re­treat, out­side Dili, and in the morn­ing I grab a ride into town with Alice, the man­ager, and re­quest to be dropped off at the mar­ket.

‘‘What do you need?’’ she asks. ‘‘Noth­ing. I’m catch­ing the bus to Bau­cau,’’ I re­ply. She looks at meas though I’ve taken leave of my­senses, be­fore adding that I’m al­most cer­tain to be in­volved in a crash.

I know that pub­lic trans­porta­tion in East Ti­mor is not (sorry) crash-hot, but I’ve de­cided on a bus to take mefrom Dili, the cap­i­tal, to Bau­cau, the sec­ond­largest town, about 120km away. Sens­ing my­blind de­ter­mi­na­tion, she wishes meluck and drives off.

There seems to be no one else wait­ing as I lurk near stalls where fresh fish bake in the sun, their smell per­me­at­ing the air. Whenanold minibus pulls up, dozens of would-be pas­sen­gers ma­te­ri­alise and rush for the door. Within sec­onds, the ve­hi­cle is full.

The driver agrees (with the help of a few dol­lars) to let mesit be­side him. I am­re­lieved to have a seat, de­spite Alice’s pre­dic­tions of doom­ring­ing in myear. Just when I think there is no space for more pas­sen­gers, a wom­anopens the door and squashes in be­side me. She blesses her­self, which is al­most enough to make mechange my­mind and hop off, ex­cept she is heav­ily preg­nant and I amwedged in.

The driver’s cig­a­rette lighter doesn’t work and we are not go­ing any­where un­til that prob­lem gets fixed. Ahand reaches down from the roof, of­fer­ing a re­place­ment. Ev­i­dently there is at least one pas­sen­ger on the roof, and I hope he will still be there when we arrive. As it turns out, sev­eral men­ride on the roof and an­other stands on the run­ning board.

With the driver’s nico­tine sit­u­a­tion sorted, we pull away from the small mar­ket. At our first vil­lage stop, the driver walks across the road to a well, de­voted to St An­thony, where he blesses him­self with holy wa­ter, an act of de­vo­tion that mayvery well keep him on the straight and nar­row, at least as far as his driv­ing is con­cerned.

The preg­nant wom­a­nis recit­ing the rosary and the driver is puff­ing cig­a­rette smoke in my­face. All is go­ing well. About three hours later we arrive in Bau­cau. The ride has been in­ci­dent-free, mostly be­cause the pot­holes meant we had to go slowly.

The re­turn jour­ney takes five hours, in­clud­ing the two I spend sit­ting in the hot bus, ha­rassed by mos­qui­toes, as we drive around tout­ing for pas­sen­gers.

The bus lets me­off at the mar­ket in Dili. The fish are still there. Well, new fish, hope­fully. Do­minic Dunne is the au­thor of Ad­ven­tures of a Com­pul­sive Trav­eller (Tran­sit Lounge, $29.95), pub­lished this week.

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