Monday, October 25, 2010

One Ton of Chooks – East Timor September 2010

After 4 and a half years in East Timor I still have seen very little of it. This is mainly due to my bolt to Bali every three months to be pampered and stock up on Marks and Spencers underwear, which in fact I will need to do soon due to cheap Indonesian towels, my white knickers are now shades of mottled red and blue!

So when a friend of mine said she was going on a road trip around Timor I asked if she needed a passenger. She is the catering manager for PDL Toll and she was heading up the catering for this year’s Tour De Timor, which meant she had to visit the 4 sites where the cyclists would stay, Balibo, Suai, Ainaro and Alieu. I’d been to Balibo and Alieu before but not the other locations or the route between them. For her it was a bit of company on some long drives.

Day 1 5.30 am – It’s still dark when we arrived at the heliport and no-one else is there yet, but it doesn’t stop Cath clambering on board a fork lift truck and unloading the containers by a mixture of car headlights and my torch. By 6 some of the rest of the crew had arrived but not the forklift operator, best laid plans and all that. Only ½ an hour behind schedule and a hearty breakfast inside us we formed a convoy following the huge army Mack and the landrover with trailer that was transporting copious amounts of food, ovens and gas bottles to our first location of Balibo.

We had only got 8k out of town when the Ozzy army boys (actually the driver of the huge Mack was a girl!) pulled over for their first radio check, it was going to be a long day. Several radio checks later and never in a convenient location with a bush (well a girl has got to pee), we arrive in Balibo after taking in some gorgeous costal and mountainous scenery. Only problem was, we were the only people there, not an organiser in sight.

Half an hour or so later Tony arrives and shows us our kitchen. Well actually what he shows us is two classrooms full of miniature chairs and desks, a single light bulb (installed the day before) and wire mesh for windows. Not a problem says Cath, grabbing the first of many, many desks that we chain ganged out of there onto the playing field outside. Once the classroom was emptied and swept (a long time since that happened), the shell started to form into a kitchen, tables, cookers, BBQ, hand washing station, plus mega caterings packs of cereal, t-bags, orange juice etc.
As the chefs prepared the kitchen the rest of us prepared the living quarters, i.e. the classroom next door when the key was eventually located, more desks and chairs on the playing field forming a rather nice looking outdoor restaurant. Eventually the UN arrived with the water, the Generator arrived (as most districts have very sporadic town power) and the Portaloos arrived along with what seemed like the whole of Balibos dogs and kids, including a nasty little imp with a home-made pea shooter made from a plastic bottle neck and a piece of balloon, that had an amazing range, right into the eye of one of the Timorese helpers.

By mid afternoon the whole town was transformed, a finish line, streamers everywhere, kids clutching Tour De Timor flags and sporting t-shirts, it was all coming together, except for the garbage collection. Now if you are going to create rubbish, you must be responsible and take it with you or dispose of it properly, the organizers had planned for this but the truck hadn’t turned up on time, so where we were dumping rubbish at the back of the school turned into a rag pickers paradise. Every bag we put there was immediately raided by kids and dogs, both being very hungry. Luckily the next day the trucks disposed of the trash.

Day 2 – According to the official brochure, lunch would be served from 11 until 2 and dinner from 5 until 7. Whoever wrote the brochure obviously hadn’t ridden the grueling 126km in East Timor’s blazing heat! The first rider came in at 4hrs 11mins which is about the time it took us to drive! Many of the riders ended up on the ‘Sad Wagon’ which picks up the riders that haven’t completed the course in 8 hours. So the whole day was a production line of food with only a ½ an hour break between lunch and dinner. I found one poor guy in that break sitting dazed and confused outside the kitchen, a fruit bar revived him and stopped his shakes. The amount of energy these guys burn up and the amount of fluid they lose, one guy had to be choppered out that night due to heat stroke.

Every rider and volunteer had a wrist band which we checked when they came up for food, but what the organizers hadn’t counted on is the local volunteers coming up two or more times for food or sharing their wrist band amongst their friends, so instead of feeding 500 people at lunch we counted 850 plates!

Day 3 – Cath and the crew were up at 3am to prepare breakfast for 5am, which is the time I woke up, brushed my teeth, dismantled my tent and grabbed a cup of tea, ready to set off in the dark to Suai. Every location had Mack truck and LandRover delivering supplies the day before, so Tony had already set up the kitchen in Suai. We had to leave with the advance party to get to the next location ahead of the riders following an army escort. Setting off in the dark, Cath did a grand job keeping up with the army who seemed to treat the roads like some extreme rally race. As soon as you got out of Bobinaro the went up and up and up, twisting and turning with hairpin bends, fantastic scenery but so hard on the riders.

Ainaro was a bit more organised, the school was a bit more modern and had electricity and toilets but the kitchen was still in a classroom, as was the first aid station and the physio room. The kitchen was also helped out by some local volunteers and a great bunch of army guys including Jabber, a giant of an American who insisted on having his photo taken with two of the local female volunteers perched on each shoulder. After much giggling and shyness we got the shot.

There was also a Kiwi Padre who turned our bed camp into a holy place to say prayers with the local volunteers before bed.

Given the experience in Balibo we tried to ration the fruit and energy bars to the riders as they needed it the most, there was mountains of other food to be had and today lunch rolled into dinner without a break. So I became the fruit Nazi, much to the distain of some non rider volunteers. The sad wagon picked up even more riders today so the queue at dinner seemed to go on for miles. The first aid the physio stations were packed as the terrain was very hard and many people took a tumble.

They were not the only ones in pain, I’m used to being horizontal in water, not on my feet all day, everything was aching, what a wimp!

Day 4 – The journey seemed shorter and relatively flat compared to previous days. It didn’t seem that long before we were in Ainaro. Ainaro is a pretty little town and I had the pleasure of watching the local school band performing for the president. One thing I really have noticed travelling through the districts is how clean they are compared to Dili. The people living here may have very little in terms of running water and electricity but they have a pride in their homes, unlike Dili where rubbish is discarded from car windows at frightening regularity.

This time the kitchen and dining room were combined which had its own drawbacks especially when it bucketed it down and everyone sought refuge in the kitchen because there was no other dry space. This led to very slippery floors and people milling around in the walkways when you are trying to carry bucket loads of potato salad. I helped out in the kitchen in the morning by cracking chooks (Australian for chicken!) Whenever I didn’t do it quite right, the Timorese kitchen staff would subtly take my finished chook and correct it with a little smile.

Because we have had really weird weather this year and unseasonal downpours, the mozzy dome tents provided for the cyclists would obviously not protect them from the torrent of rain we were experiencing, so the community of Ainaro pulled together and offered verandas and rooms for the cyclists and volunteers to sleep, we ended up sleeping in the kitchen.

Day 5 – Leaving at 6am we set off for Alieu winding our way up the mountains again through incredible scenery. At the highest point of 1500ft above sea level, it seemed to level off into lush grassy plains. In the distance we could see the water station, bright red coca-cola flags billowing in the wind, offset against lush bright green hills with a crystal blue sky. We stopped and got out of the car, the chill of the mountain air, crisp in the morning with the warmth of the sun on our backs, overlooking the valleys and clouds below us with Dave Stewart instrumental playing on the car CD. It was one of life’s magic moments.

Alieu was the worst kitchen yet, it was actually the schools tiny kitchen, the only advantage to which it had a tap inside the kitchen which meant the mud floors got sodden and became slippery as hell, which is not good when you are dealing with heavy, hot buckets of chicken etc. We set the lunch tables up on the playground but soon had to move them to the verandas of the classrooms as rain was threatening again.

Now although East Timor is the land of the crocodile, in the 4 plus years I’ve been here I have (luckily) never seen one (in this country). Today was my first chance, 2 hours inland there was a 3 meter saltwater crock in a pond (with a fence around). Cath decided the adorable little thing was hungry so fed it a couple of chooks, boy crocks can really move fast when there is food around.

Today I managed to see the first of the riders cross the finish line and get to have a look around as Dean was so organized in the kitchen (plus it was so small I’d just get in the way), so I visited the local markets and took some photos. The last time I was in Alieu the whole of the main street was flooded.

I also took some photos of ‘The Guru’, a local eccentric that decided to bless us all with his rosary beads and bible while trying to snaffle some food under his multiple layers of colorful but filthy clothing.

I was the pasta Nazi that evening as we had a bit of a repeat of Balibo, many more mouths to feed than were originally estimated. Buy 8pm things were starting to run out, plenty of meat but veg was getting low so we rationed the pasta for veggies only. One particular non rider vegetarian had been bugging the hell out of us for the last 5 days with his incessant whining about vegetarian food. Every meal there had been plenty of salad, bread, potato salad, eggs for breakfast, veg and veggy pasta in the evening, no-one went hungry and any leftover food was given to the local community. However, every lunchtime he would always come in late and say ‘Can I possibly trouble you for some eggs as we vegetarians need our protein you know’, to which Cath would always answer ‘Of course you may, like I said before you just have to ask and we would be happy to cook you some eggs’. Bear in mind this guy was not a rider so was expending very little energy apart from making himself a pain in the arse. Of course it was just gone 8 pm when this guy rocked up for his veggy food, and thank goodness I had been pasta Nazi otherwise I would have got it in the ear from him. As he got his food a colleague of mine said ‘You know what mate you are a w****r! You have been giving us shit for the last 5 days, now take your f*****g food and eat it! ‘ The guy looked shell shocked, but it made us all laugh and wish we had said it ourselves. I mean come on, you’re in a country that struggles for drinking water, meat is an absolute luxury that you may get once a month, there are kids running around with yellow streaks in their hair due to malnutrition, and you are worried about 5 days without an egg! Pompus arse.

The last supper over we sat down with a well earned beer and did the calculations, over 5 days, 3 meals a day, over 7500 plates of food were served. One ton of chicken was served, imagine going through a ton of chooks!

That night the fog came in and you could hardly see a couple of meters in front of you, chilly as well. My bed for the night was the car, which I think was the best night’s sleep I had all week.
Day 6 – Cath didn’t fancy the off road style driving following the army through the fog, so we packed up after breakfast, watched the medal ceremony from the previous day (delayed because of the rain the day before) and actually managed to see the start of the final leg of the race.

A slow journey down as we were following the riders, but a pretty one never the less. Finally getting into Dili all the roads were closed, but we managed to sneak through the back way. I was relieved to get home as I had run out of clean clothes, only managed a cats lick that morning due to the cold and my brain doesn’t seem to like squat toilets, the bunged up feeling was getting a little uncomfortable. So seeing my own hot shower and western style loo was bliss.
My first ‘holiday’ since February, wasn’t really a holiday but it was great fun and experience and a wonderful way to see some of this extremely beautiful country. And well done to all the riders.

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