Getting to Dili is a challenge. Getting around in Dili is a challenge, and finding ways to keep yourself busy when it rains incessantly for three days in Dili is a REAL challenge.
We flew out of Denpasar around 12:30 in the afternoon on a Monday. After hours of Internet scouring, several intensely frustrating skype calls, and a couple trips to dodgy tour companies, a special trip to the Bali airport sales desk, we came to the realization that we would have to fork over nearly 5,000,000 Indo Rupiah cash in order to get to East Timor. For one it's VERY unclear which airlines even fly there. I had to go to a Lonely Planet forum to find out Merpati Air might be our only option. For two, Merpati has no online ticket purchasing capability on their website. Just silly!
So you're forced to call their ticket purchasing hotline, and get bounced around until someone speaks English, and ends up giving you another number to call. In the end we each called at least twice and got a different answer each time, one answer included, "We don't fly to Dili. We won't start that flight for another month."
On the final attempt we found a flight for a reasonable price, were just about ready to purchase, and were told "We only accept Indonesain credit cards".
So we had decided to take the van shuttle back to Denpasar in the morning. We would have the driver drop us at the airport and surely at the sales desk, they could help us out. However, on arrival we found out that, no, in fact they couldn't help, as they had no credit card machine.
Seriously? Airline sales desk with no credit card machine?! We eventually paid in cash, got our tickets and boarded our flight to Dili four days later.
We flew into Dili with a unbelievable sight out the plane window. As we looked down to the beach and ocean, we noticed that a dark, brown line of water had pushed its way out from the land a good 200 meters and below us was the very water we had flown here to dive in... Hmm, maybe there is some special place to dive, that we hadn't seen. (?)
After landing with a jittery few jolts we came to a stop and peered out the window into what appeared to be a fairly powerful tropical storm or depression of some sort. The palm trees were bent sideways and the rain was pouring down in sheets, and of course we were de-boarding directly onto the tarmac.
We ran like hell from the slippery metal stairs to the covered walkway that welcomed us to Timor-Leste in bold white letters. After filling out the obligatory and ever confusing immigration documents and forking over $60 cash to enter, we grabbed our bags and met our driver from the Dive Timor Lorosae shop/hotel. He helped us into the van and we embarked on a rather exciting journey to the hotel.
As I mentioned, the weather was treacherous, however, despite this there was dozens of mostly young people lining the streets yelling, jumping, and waving all sorts of flags. "Uhh, is this normal?" we ask.
And in response we were informed that it just so happened to be election week in East Timor, and all these people felt the need to take to the streets to show their support for their favored candidate.
To add even more excitement to this short journey, the state of the roads in the capital city of East Timor, was nothing less than atrocious. It felt as though we were on some sort of off-road safari. Massive blocks of concrete missing in the middle of the city, huge potholes, dirt tracks, and lake sized puddles to forge through in order to finally make it to our dive shop/ hotel.
After checking in, we chatted to the office manager to sort out our options for diving. She said it had been a "really dry wet season until just a few days ago" but reassured us that there was good diving to be had. And so, we booked ourselves in for the following day. As the rain hadn't let up in the slightest we made the easy decision to head upstairs to the balcony bar and grill attached to the dive shop to get some late lunch and a couple beers and watch the parade of people, trucks, motorbikes all honking horns and waving flags in excitement over the election.
Despite having researched and having full understanding, we still couldn't help but be completely floored by the prices. Firstly, all prices and payment is done in USD. Secondly, the prices were about on par with say, San Francisco. Not exactly what you would expect in such a developing country, especially given the fact that a short flight to the west and the prices would drop by 2/3.
Despite this, we enjoyed a good few drinks, ordered pizza, and retired early to our completely vacant suite. We sat in the suite's lounge room and watched movies until we were ready for bed.
In the morning, we had a quick breakfast and met our divemaster Ashley. He is a friendly, blokey, Aussie from Northern Territory. He works several weeks in the mines of NT and during his off-time, he regularly takes the trip up to East Timor to guide and train divers in some of the world's best corals.
We grabbed our gear, put it in the back of the van and hopped in the backseat. For the entire hour and a half trip up the coast, Ashley rattled on about Timor-Leste history, more recent political and social unrest, and of course all his favorite dive stories. All the while, we took in the lush green dramatic hills out our right-side window and island spotted seaside out our left.
The weather had improved dramatically over night, however, we weren't sure that the water conditions had. We finally came upon a site they seemed to agree on. We unloaded the gear and suited up next to the rocky beach. This would be the first time I had attempted a beach dive, so I was excited, but a little intimidated at the idea of negotiating the rocky ground and pounding swell with heavy diving gear on my back, but what the hell... Here we go.
We walked out a good distance before we finally found where the shelf began and the ground dropped away revealing a coral wall we were to dive near. We all gave each other the 'OK' and slipped beneath the surface of the water. As we were all descending I noticed right away that the visibility was awful and my breath started to speed up. I almost immediately lost the dive guide and took me another couple of seconds to find Adrian. We sank to deeper depths and began to swim a bit. I was pretty damn nervous at this point. We couldn't see ANYTHING. The feeling of disorientation was hard to ignore. At just that moment, I felt a tap on my arm. It was Ashley, and he was clearly not happy. He gave us the, "let's get the hell out of here" sign, and we all at once ascended to the surface.
We all agreed that the conditions were awful and that no one was comfortable down there. So after a three minute dive we called it and made our way back to shore. We got out of our big, heavy gear, but kept on our wetsuits as there was one more spot he wanted to try.
Twenty minutes down the road and we pulled off once again. This time Ashley and his local dive guide ventured out to check out the conditions with goggles. He came back and assured us the conditions were better and that we should give 'er another go.
We suited up and made our way back into the water. After our final preparation, we once again, gave each other the 'OK' and slowly sunk beneath the water. Sure enough, the conditions were MUCH better. We descended to about 18 meters and began to swim along the coral wall. The coral was beautiful and insanely vivid, and the sealife was incredibly diverse. After about 10 minutes we swam to a point at the wall where currents definitely started to change. Ashley instructed us both to turn around and swim, however, in doing so we both quickly realized that this wasn't going to be easy. We kicked our fins as hard as we possibly could but weren't getting anywhere. Suddenly out of nowhere I feel a hand grab mine and place it on a nearby piece of coral. I held on and looked up. Coming towards me was what appeared to be a dark brown cloud that resembled "The Nothing" from the classic 80's flick "The Neverending Story". What the...??!!
Just as "The Nothing" hit us, I gripped the coral tighter and felt a strong current pull my body away from the very coral I was gripping. The surge lasted about 30 seconds, during which time it was pitch black. After the surge let up I looked around to find Adrian right next to me and the local guide on my other side. We looked at each other as if to say, "What on Earth was THAT!?"
Just then the guide gestured for me to turn around. Upon turning my head, I saw yet another "Nothing-like" surge heading right for us. We all grabbed on again and held on tight as the dark cloud enveloped us and violently tried to pull us from our perch. Fortunately, none of us let go, and after another 30-45 seconds the surge relented and cleared up.
At this point, we all had had about enough. We gave the sign and began ascending to the surface. After pulling our regulators from our mouth we all let out a massive, "Holy Sh*t!" that was intense! We made our way to the beach and called it for the day.
We spent the next hour on the drive home recounting our experience. Ashley explained that never in all his diving, had he experienced anything like that. While it was rather exciting, it certainly wasn't pleasant diving. He told us that he would talk to the office and make sure we didn't pay for the day.
So the half day was chalked up as a nice leisurely coastal dive, 15 minutes of 'diving' and a rather fun, exciting and certainly memorable experience.
When we arrived back at the hotel, just on cue, it began to rain. We spent the next few hours playing cards and writing blogs. We went back to our suite to find we had new neighbors. As it turned out, one of the East Timor presidential candidates was staying in the room next to ours. It was a bit hard to believe, but after witnessing all the attention she was receiving and seeing several interviews set up right outside our room, it began sinking in that we were indeed sharing a toilet with East Timor's Michele Bachmann.
We chilled for the rest of the evening, committing ourselves to do our best to tick off Dili siteseeing the following day (our last day in the country).
After a nice long sleep in, we woke up the following morning to a bit of sunshine. We had breakfast and got ready for a day on the town. East Timor History Museum, followed by a stop at the bookshare/community library building, and wrapping it up with a visit to the 'Big Jesus'. We got chatting to Ashley who appeared to be doing a lot of sitting around as the diving had been called off for the day and he agreed to take us into town, bring us to the ATM, and drop us at the museum.
We stopped at the local grocery store, got some cash, checked out a rather demolished yacht that had slammed into the sea wall overnight, and eventually made it to the museum, where we were dropped. We thanked Ashley for the lift and headed for the entrance. As it happened, the museum was closed for renovation for the next few months. We next went to the library, and that too was closed for renovation. Geez!
Instead we stopped in to a Lebanese shop for a very expensive bite to eat.
We were surrounded by UN workers, young, intelligent NGO employees debating complicated social issues, and a couple British expats, interesting crowd for sure.
After lunch, we hailed a cab and did our best to explain we wanted to go visit the Big Jesus. He dropped us near the path and we struggled to communicate that we wanted him to wait for us. Eventually, we got there, and climbed out of the taxi and started up the steep climb to Jesus. Perched high on a bluff overlooking the capital of Dili and the South Pacific, is the second largest Jesus statue on the planet...only Rio's famous monument is larger. (Like Brazil, East Timor is a former Portuguese colony.)
We climbed to the top in roughly 15 minutes. We took in the view, snapped some photos, and started down the hill so as not to keep our driver waiting too long. We jumped back into our cab and told the driver to drive back to our hotel. We looked at each other and shrugged... Well, I guess that does it for site-seeing in Dili.
We spent the rest of the night having dinner and drinking wine as the rain continued to fall. The parade of election-happy citizens was constantly in the background.We got to sleep rather early as we had exhausted our to-do's in Dili. In the morning, we had breakfast, showered, packed up, and paid our bill. It was time for us to leave East Timor.
No, the weather did not cooperate. No, we didn't really get to 'dive' East Timor. But, as always a side trip off the beaten path was well worth it in terms of experiencing and witnessing a new country and culture and learning a bit about the tumultuous history of a small, little known but beautiful SE Asian nation.