My time in Surabaya passed without incident or much to write home about. It was my second visit to the city and, much like I found in India, new malls have popped up in the last five years but it’s still playing catch up to Jakarta. Surabaya is not the most happening of places but over two and a half million people call it home and its large port and strategic location between Singapore and Australia make the city an important one in the fourth most populated country in the world. More interesting is how the city got its name. It’s believed that a shark (sura) and a crocodile (baya) once fought to see which is the strongest and most powerful animal, reflecting a conflict between ancient warring factions in the region. The two animals now appear on the city’s logo.
More interesting still was my time in East Timor. The small country, only 400 miles from Darwin in Australia, celebrated its tenth anniversary since independence earlier this year and the fortunes of its people have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Colonised by Portugal until 1975, it was then claimed by Indonesia as its 27th province and spent a quarter of a century of bloody war and widespread starvation attempting to gain independence from Suharto’s Indonesian regime. Things came to a head in 1991 when 270 pro-independence activists (including Western foreigners) were killed by Indonesian troops in what is known as the Dili Massacre. In the decade following this pressures from foreign nations and the UN led to Indonesia relinquishing control of East Timor and after a slow transition the country is now thankfully at peace.
Evidence of the years of struggle and turmoil are still apparent in the capital, Dili, today with many gutted buildings dotted around town. Aside from these scars it’s an enchanting little place with smiling faces and an air of optimism. It reminds me a little of many African capital cities but far more hassle free. Not that long ago foreign offices were advising people not to visit due to the potential for violence but the reality now is far from that.
It’s obviously not a huge global player in terms of foreign investment but Australian expats abound here and the UN peace keeping forces are a ubiquitous sight. The Aussies are kept happy with Tooheys and Victoria Bitter beers flowing freely in the few breezy expat hangouts such as Castaway and Nautilus which overlook the pleasant beachfront lined with palm trees. The closest thing to ‘Western’ shopping is the Timor Plaza with its two floors (yes, a whopping two floors!) of shops and a pukka Gloria Jeans coffee shop. The expat supermarkets don’t look much from the outside but they have enough imported goodies from Australia to please visitors. You can even get fresh meats imported from Australia every three weeks at the enterprising Food-L-Do outlet.
A rather intriguing sight around town are the many graffiti covered walls with bicycles painted in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. I asked at the hotel about this and it turns out that as well as hosting an annual marathon the country takes pride in its Tour de Timor too. Ok, it’s not the Tour de France but with over 350 local and international riders taking part it is an important annual event which is helping East Timor to move further away from its recent struggles.