I think I’ve left the world behind

My writer's retreat - the old Portugese colonial governor's mansion perched on a solitary hilltop in Maubisse.

My writer’s retreat – the old Portuguese colonial governor’s mansion perched on a solitary hilltop in Maubisse.

Come to East Timor if you want to be a writer. There is no internet, no distractions and not a taxi in sight on the streets after 9 pm (this only applies to Dili – vehicles, like the ‘malay‘ (foreigner), are a rare sight outside of the nation’s capital). Woe on those who are planning to stay out after 9. And double woe on those who, like me, like to have a cup of coffee after dinner. A long night with your own thoughts to keep you company awaits. Sometimes, there is no electricity and water as well (this also only applies to Dili – in the provinces, electricity and water is the exception rather than the norm).

That’s the push factor. The pull factor is that there are still plenty of stories – some magical. Those who don’t believe in god obviously have not travelled to the remote corners of the earth.

I talk of magical stories, partly because the above colonial mansion is also quite possibly haunted. I was the only guest in the otherworldy surrounds of a strangely well-preserved and carefully-dusted colonial governor’s residence, where everything seems to be untouched since the Portuguese governor of Maubisse, a coffee-growing hill station, packed up and went home to Lisbon. The dark wood creaks, the huge bay windows have to be wrestled shut to stop the howling of the wind.

this is what a night in an old colonial mansion looks like

this is what a night in an old colonial mansion looks like

In the evenings I dined alone in the dining hall (meals had to be requested in advance, and further more in advance if you’d like meat – chicken), before the wait staff head home for the day after dinner time, leaving me all alone. I feel like I am, unknowingly, placed by an author, an all-powerful God of my small world, in a murder mystery, a crime novel. I just hoped I would be the valiant detective instead of the decapitated victim.

Being the brave man that I am, I also decided to check all the drawers and armoires during the day, arming myself with the thought that ‘this has to be done sooner or later, and better sooner’, capitalising on the bright sunlight to vapourise any unholy abomination. Thankfully, there were none to be found, just some old hangers and some dust mounds (or are those dead vampires).

I guess I was lucky, because I later found out that it’s sister, the Pousada de Baucau, was an ex Indonesian torture centre during the occupation. It is now also a hotel targetting suckers like myself.



Power cut in Sandakan, Borneo, stretching the already long and hot afternoon delightfully...

Power cut in Sandakan, Borneo, stretching the already long and hot afternoon delightfully…

Sometimes, as philosophers say, it’s good to have a jolt, a reality check – to not just think out of the box, but take yourself quite literally out of the box, to see what the box is like, once in a while.

If you’re even reading this, we spend so much of our lives connected to screens that feed data, sound and pictures, that we’ve quite forgotten what it’s like to be unplugged, disconnected – lighting out, uncontactable and stuck with yourself for a few hours. And, what about real experience, instead of superficial digital stimulation of our senses and pseudo-participating in life’s great problems by clicking ‘Like’ buttons and signing online petitions from the safety of your chair? Nothing ventured, nothing gained holds as well in life’s great game – short, but (hence) ultimately splendid. And I don’t want to spend it drugged on a virtual reality, until I finally wake up and realise it has all been but a dream.

Today, virtual reality booted me out of its wondrous rabbit hole – my computer has decided to lock me out of it, after I changed some of my registry files yesterday. I suddenly found myself with 2 hours on my hand on a sun-lit Saturday afternoon. 2 hours online passes very fast, I think we all know that, but now, those 2 hours loomed large ahead of me – I was suddenly very conscious of how long, how deliciously eternal this time seemed.

I sat down with a book on a quiet sunny Saturday afternoon on the Big Bang and how ‘we are all stardust’, I made myself a salad with care, I looked out of the window… there was no rush or need to get anywhere or do something for the sake of passing the time – I didn’t have new ‘news’ feeding in from the conflict in Mali to read and pseudo-participate in, I didn’t – couldn’t – have emails to care about, I couldn’t snoop around on my friends on Facebook… I was stuck with myself and my own thoughts.

It made me think that, sometimes, we should take a step back, unplug, and see how we react to it. I should think that, stuck with yourself for a few hours, the only way to pass the time is to get to know yourself better…

Memories of East Timor – Chapter 1: arriving

This is what I scribbled, in my journal, in East Timor. I was just there over most of November, taking a 2 week vacation off from work that made me yearn to get back to the office on the 3rd day of my trip – yes, it’s tough work travelling in East Timor. Hats off to them, East Timor tried its best to kill me – from the searing heat and my lack of sunblock (I soon grew watery blisters on my skin, travelling across the country on angguna, open top trucks), to a dodgy boat trying to cross the Pacific on a 2-stroke engine, to even a ghost at an old Portuguese colonial manor, and one more spirit that my guide saw on Mt Ramelau, just to make sure. And it all didn’t come cheap too – in Dili, expect to pay 50 USD and up for the privilege of staying in a shipping container that is almost as luxurious as most ‘hotels’ go in East Timor.


Chapter 1: Arriving

Exit tax from Bali Ngurah Rai Airport: 150,000 Rupiah (15 USD). Fuck. I get scammed again in Bali.

East Timor. NO FUCKING TOURISTS. That’s my new tourism slogan for them, to get suckers like me who thrive on pain to visit and spend a lot for very little ($50 and up for a plywood cabin, or, if you’re lucky, a disused shipping container).

The search for a room is perhaps my strongest experience of being a ‘backpacker’, or ‘independent traveller’. Either way, both translate to ‘penniless bum’. Fresh off the boat with all your worldly possesions on your back, with no cheap place to stay yet. That practically defines the travelling experience for me.

Truth be told, it’s not fun – it’s hot, heavy, and sweaty sniffing around for a cheap place that you can afford. Occasionally, there are ferocious beasts to deal with as well, as in Eastern Europe when I was almost mauled by a fucking Doberman just opening a gate. It sprinted right around the corner and straight at my jugular.

The ride into town in a battered yellow taxi, albeit an overcharged one, was a joy though – windows rolled down (to stinge on the air-con when petrol is at USD1.40 per litre, as they keep reminding me), and the sights and smells of the waterfront rolled in, changing as we pass by the port, then the embassy district, and then downtown… a city that smells like salty sea breeze can never be a bad place, I decided. (This idea was severely tested during the rest of my stay here).

And it’s also a small town when ‘Tiger Fuel’ is the landmark that every taxi driver, even if they have just arrived in Dili from the provinces, knows. (My luck that I had to deal with a lot of these guys who suddenly feel the need to ask me for directions, after confidently taking off into downtown)

It’s very handy when I live just right next to it, at East Timor Backpackers – the cheapest beds in town (20 USD).

Tiger Fuel also happens to be the only place in town where you can get ‘proper, unadulterated’ fuel. No joking.

a nightime visit by Special Branch

Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly. I had a more macho dream last night – I dreamt I was being hauled in by Police ‘Special Branch’ for investigations, and kept in a lab-like room with banks of computers and fluorescent lights glaring down harshly overhead. The kind of setting that makes you feel like an animal heading to the abbatoir – exposed under the harsh light, and amongst all the other machines, your body is just one like so many others – purely flesh and blood, purely utilitarian. Actually, the setting looked like it was ripped right off my old job (part time student assistant in charge of booting out stragglers and locking up, earning what was then a princely 8 dollars per hour), which probably shows in a not-so Freudian way what I thought of my old job I guess.

Police ‘Special Branch’ in this part of the world focus more on eradicating political opponents than criminals. They do like the harsh lights trick for starters, and much worse of course. That, and the Victorian ‘Internal Security Act’ providing for detention without trial, a leftover of the British colonialists, are often enough to paralyse any opposition movement and cultivate a climate of fear and silence.

There was another prisoner there as well in my dream world (a Dutchman, for some strange reason). We spoke, and after I had settled in quite nicely, I was sent for and marched out with my lawyer. Freed. On my truimphant march to freedom I heroically demanded that my companion  be released as well.

What would Freud have to say of this. Nevertheless, I woke up feeling like a fucking hero.

As much as I like to pretend to stay on a solitary mountaintop and be beyond the worldy dust – and muck – of politics, the harsh whisper of one of Graham Greene’s characters in the Quiet American (based on Vietnamese superspy Pham Xuan An – his biography by Larry Berman was an excellent read) always seems to ring true – ‘sooner or later, one must take sides if one is to remain human’. I am not a dissident or a politico (in case Special Branch really are looking in) – I am more interested in accountable governance, and seeing principles of justice and moral rule being upheld. The greatest shortage facing the world, afterall, as Jeffrey Sachs astutely pointed out, is not oil, food, or even clean water – it is principled and moral leadership.

This man is my hero

trabzon in a haze of hüzün – sketches

Trabzon. Winding up the hill to Atatürk Alanı (in Turkey, it’s simple – the main street in any town is always Atatürk, so its always either Atatürk Bulvarı (Boulevard) or Caddesi (Street)) in a dolmuş (shared minivan) that rocked over the cobblestoned streets and barely scraped through the passages that got more and more narrow as we huffed and puffed up the hill – all the elements of a dream. Just below I could see the little ferries on the Black Sea, the signs in Cyrillic reading ‘Sochi’. I could hop on one and head off to the Russian port, and start a new life where nobody will ever be able to find me. Maybe marry a hot Russian girl, as my friends always tease me, buy a little farm, rear some sheep and spend the rest of my life this way…

But here I am now, hauling my backpack out from the dolmuş, in the melancholic Black Sea town of Trabzon, the barber abandoning his customer to dash out of his shop to shake my hand – it feels like I have come home – I am back in my beloved Turkey again, making the crossing from the Caucasus, from Georgia this time. The third time I am in Turkey in three years.

I am getting emotional – it has been a rainy drive along the melancholic Black Sea, where you see the sad sad rain falling in sheets over the water, and heave little sighs of bittersweet melancholy, raindrops gathering on the car windows… The Black Sea is melancholy, I wrote in my journal…

It is August this time, and I am just in time to celebrate Ramazan as well, the Muslim holy month. I remember waiting for the cannon shot from the mosque that sent pigeons fluttering into the air in shock, marking the start of iftar – the traditional sunset meal to break the fast. Waiters in white rushing around with trays of food. Whole families gathered around long tables…

The stuffed peppers were fantastic, as were the cabbage-wrapped dolma. The dolma, essentially stuffed vegetables, which the Black Sea is famous for, were rightly legendary. It is here in my foodie education that I realised everything stuffed (‘dolma‘) in Turkey is phenomenal – worthy of a sultan on his throne.

At night, strolling the high street a man at his stall selling football jerseys gave me a Trabzonspor sticker (the local football team, known as the Black Sea Storm), and refused my money. I stuck it proudly in my journal. Thousands of miles away from where I was born, but I had this strange feeling that I have come home, and I have known and loved this town all my life.

A year and a half later, the quiet sounds of Norah Jones at 3 a.m. brings back all these memories, and I feel as if I am still holding my backpack in a Trabzon street at dusk – the cobblestoned streets are quiet, just a small grocer’s still open for business, and a barbershop… I contemplate buying a ferry ticket to Sochi.

rooftop conversations

Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase after it, the more it flies away. And then when you’re just sitting there, minding your own business, it flutters down and lands on your shoulder.

– my Vietnamese friend, T, with whom I have had many mind-opening chats with back in university – exploring what life could be, instead of what was the easy solution being presented to us – graduate, get a job, get married, buy a house and a nice waching machine, pay mortgages and hope to retire one day and – gasp – die?!

As a sidenote, it was also when my Marxian phase was at its strongest, being a penniless student getting fed on ideas and ideals, incriminating just about everything in a conspiracy to perpetuate a system skewed towards preserving the interests of the 1% (as it has come into popular parlance recently), through co-opting and occassionally frightening the middle class. It was what I was supposed to do my thesis on.

It’s been 2 or 3 years, but we still keep in touch – actually, we just had a Guinness on his rooftop last Friday, pouring our hearts out and our dreams while watching skyscrapers dwarf us, and thinking of the future. To live well we need a sense of courage, and a bit of intoxicated passion, which is pretty easy to get when you are standing right by the edge of the building, looking down at the darkened streets below. It is a surreal postmodern world as million-dollar per unit skyscrapers rise just beside us like a mountain amphitheatre, and obviously, one fall away from the edge and death (T: ‘I’m not going to save you if you fall over’) one can’t help but reflect that life is a short, transitory, and a quite meaningless thing – good news as we are then free to live with the uniquely human dignity and capacity to find and freely create meaning and value, weighted down, of course, by the conscience and ghost of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

It’s also appropriate enough to remind myself about this little quote, when I get all pissed off and anxious about my very transitory weekends flitting by ever so quickly.

Cities by night – year 3

I enjoy the feeling of being the only one awake on a late night – 2 to 3 am is when I am at my best. It gives me a sense of invulnerability, immortality – nobody will be able to reach me here, I am invisible, disappeared; and yet I am awake, alive.

It gives me a sense of the infinite breathing within us – perhaps it is a feeling of nihilism made alive, its beating heart palpable by night. The night has always been a symbol of the unknown, the unknowable, the depths of the human experience. Maybe it is only when it is this quiet, maybe it is when we are so sure that we are away from prying eyes, the social gaze, that we truly understand, and revel in the knowledge that life itself, like the night, is unknowable and thus full of mysterious possibilities.

It is a leap into the fathoms of darkness that takes courage. Albert Camus must also be nursing thick black coffee on one such night, a sleepless, starlit night when he wrote, we are condemned to be free. We are marooned onto existence.

This illusion of ominiscience, this sweet paradox of being invisible, yet everywhere, as my mind runs, elated, through starlight woods, old tomes, flights of memories… This is probably the closest man will ever come to feeling like god.

And with a cup of black coffee in hand, brewed and dark, I am invulnerable, unstoppable.

postscript: The choice of the title – which, I supposed, should be subtitled, a homage to coffee, is a tip of the hat to my first few posts on this blog, 2 years ago. My first few entries then, as a relatively carefree undergrad, were my fascination with the night, with wandering a foreign city through the night and its many absurd and wonderful encounters.

In the Grand Lisboa in Macau a few months ago, a man seated beside me at the bar asked, ‘so, would you rather be famous, or faceless?’ I said, without a doubt, ‘faceless, of course’. He smiled and took another sip of whiskey.