Drive-by smoking in East Timor
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.