Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Timor-Leste (vii): On a Deserted Island

Jaco Island was one of the things on my list for Timor that I was not so sure I'd be able to check off. The entire time I was there I asked people I met whether or not they thought I should make the trip. Jaco is a tiny uninhabited island just off the eastern tip of Timor in the Tutuala district. It's considered sacred to the people, so no one is allowed to live there. I'd heard of how spectacularly beautiful and remote it was, but that the road there was treacherous during the rainy season. The final 10 kms down to the beach from Tutuala, I was told, was a nearly impassable slope of rocks and mud. The responses I'd gotten were pretty predictable. Older, more sensible people (including my manager) were wary and advised extreme caution or to avoid it altogether. Those younger told me I had to do it no matter what.

Fortunately, after the drive to Ramelau and gaining a new respect for 4WD trucks, I was convinced I could conquer any terrain. So my last weekend in Timor, I went back and reserved another Prado and set off along the coast toward Jaco. The drive east from Dili was nothing like the road south. Timor's other major town, Baucau, is about two hours down the coast, so the connecting road is well maintained. It's paved and flat and only took about two hours to drive the 100 or so kms.

I grabbed lunch in Baucau and kept on east. Driving along the coast was beautiful and vastly different from the mountainous interior. Often the road was just feet from the ocean. The road led over sparse rolling hills dotted with small patches of trees and rice paddies. Water buffalo strolled casually across the street. Towns grew smaller and less developed. The road was increasingly overgrown and traversed by chickens and pigs. Homes were constructed of flimsier and more primitive materials. It was like traveling back through time.

A number of times, I stopped to admire solitary Mangrove trees standing just beyond the waves in the water. That image is something so foreign to me that it feels almost alien. Defiant of the hostile ocean, rooted in salt and sand, the Mangrove seems an anomaly to me.

When I arrived in Tutuala, the last point before the descent to the beach, I got out of the Prado to stretch and survey what I was up against. The road didn't appear terribly daunting at first. When I headed down, it did get pretty rocky, but really nothing worse than what I was facing en route to Ramelau. I made it to the beach and unfazed at around 6 in the afternoon. I found my way to the guesthouse, which was comprised of a few thatched huts. The fishermen that would take me across to Jaco would only do so in the morning, so I spent the rest of the evening walking along the beach and drinking warm Tiger beer. There were also a few Timorese guys on holiday from Dili there. They spent the night fishing on the beach and grilling a giant fish that they brought with them. They welcomed me to join them and I sat with them by their fire. They insisted I fish, which of course ended with me hooking one of them with the rod. They offered me some of their grilled fish, which turned out to be delicious and copious amounts of more Tiger beer covered in sand. I was fishing grains of sand out of my teeth all the next day.

In the morning at about 7, I found the fishermen who were to ferry me across. I gave them $5 for the ride and we set out across the couple hundred meters of ocean to Jaco. They indicated that they'd have to pick me up at 11am because the water would be too rough after that. So for the next 4 hours I had Jaco Island to myself. White sand that felt like walking on flour, vivid turquoise water rivaled maybe only by the glacial lakes I saw in Banff, dark undulating clouds rolling down from the mainland mountains. It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been before. The most remote place I'd ever been. A week before I was to head back home, having spent nearly 2 months in Timor, I was at a weightless apex before being pulled back down to reality.

At 11, the boat came back to pick me up and they were right. The water was alarmingly rough. I wasn't concerned about getting thrown in the water so much as losing my camera. Priorities. Once back on the mainland, I got back in the Prado and powered back up the rocks to Tutuala. I will grant that that slope would be much worse had it rained. I headed back to Dili and spent my remaining week at a very leisurely pace. I'd taken weekend trips almost every weekend I'd been in Timor so I was exhausted. It was a fascinating couple of months and I'd done and seen things I hadn't before. I've been home for as long as I was away and it's amazing how experiences fade so quickly, but these are stories I'll carry with me for a long time.