A weekend in the second youngest country in the world!

Less than a week after returning from my meet up with Terri in Hong Kong, I had to pick up my travel bag again and head to Indonesia.   And from the area I was visiting, it was only a short journey to one of the world’s youngest countries – Timor Leste (East Timor).

But why would I be tempted to visit Timor Leste?  Apart from the obvious “well I haven’t been there before” reason which is always one very strong motivation.  There was another compelling reason to visit TL though.  In November, I had bid farewell to Dr H who had been looking me after all through my treatment.  In fact, she had been looking after me ever since the first time I walked into her surgery with the lump I had discovered a few hours previously.

As I had fairly recently arrived in Myanmar when I found the lump in 2009, I had not yet had any need to consult a Doctor. My first consultation with Dr H was the one where she referred me urgently to Bangkok for investigation. So my first visit to the clinic was a highly memorable one for both of us.   She was in touch with me constantly following the appointment, while we desperately tried to get necessary paperwork to allow me to travel, and she strongly argued my case when there was resistance to me being seen at the hospital she was referring me to in Bangkok.  The week of the diagnosis and surgery she called regularly for updates and to see how I was doing.  And bear in mind that we are talking international calls, where phone connections can be fragile.

I became a regular in the clinic as I travelled along the treatment path, and as an oncology patient I know I did get special treatment.   Such as appointments arranged so that I would not be likely to be exposed to infection such as after school time, chocolate frogs which are usually reserved for children following injections and painful treatments, phone calls to my oncologist in Bangkok or the oncology suite during the lost days of pneumonia and more recently port flushing problems.  I was looked after above and beyond the call of duty, for sure.

In November last year the various Doctors in the region transferred to new postings in what transpired like a kind of sideways shuffle.  Dr H was transferred to Dili, Timor Leste, and was replaced by Doctor M who coincidentally had been caring for a friend in a neighbouring country as she went through her treatment.  It was tough to see Dr H leave, as we had become friends as well as having a sound Doctor-patient relationship.  When she left Yangon I promised I would do my best to visit her in Dili.  If I was ever in that part of the region.  However, at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelagos and only 400 miles from Darwin in Australia, Dili is not exactly on major travel routes and I was not sure how realistic a visit might be.

A few weeks ago, it became clear that would have to travel to Indonesia in February, and adding on a trip to Dili suddenly became a real possibility.  There followed a flurry of emails, flight enquiries and preparations.  Before I knew it, the trip was no longer a possibility – it was really going to happen!  I was booked to fly out of Indonesia after my visit there, and would have around 48 hours in Dili before returning to Yangon.  I would arrive just after lunchtime on the Saturday, and leave again on the Monday around the same time.  I was travelling to the second youngest country in the world, the furthest east and the furthest south I have ever travelled.  And I was going to sty with the Doctor I started the whole breast cancer experience with.  How is that for a turnaround in less than three years?!

I had absolutely no expectations about my visit to Timor Leste.  I believed it was the second youngest country in the world, South Sudan being the youngest.  (I have since learned that it is actually the fourth youngest country, the first new state of the 21st century.  However I did not change the title of this post as the fourth just doesn’t have the same ring to it!)  I had not realised how close Timor Leste is to Australia until I looked it up on the map.  I had heard there were hills, but apart from that had no idea what the topography was like.  I was also extremely busy in the run up to my visit, so had very little time to devote to preparation or thinking about TL.

Descending into Dili airport, I felt myself gasp at the rugged, beautiful terrain as we flew towards land.  Steep, lush mountains and wide, gushing muddy rivers showing the rainy season landscape.  We landed on the narrow airstrip just a few metres from the sea, welcoming the sight of dry land underneath us in the blink before we touched down.   There was quite a military presence when we landed, perhaps someone important on my flight?  And of course the many blue berets of the UN as a sign of the turbulence of recent years.  And smiles, warm engaging smiles everywhere.

I handed over my application for on arrival visa with the fee, and by return of hand had a visa in my possession to take to the immigration counter.  A few minutes later I was in Timor Leste.  I walked through to the luggage carousel, and incredibly my little travel bag was the very first bag to arrive.  Now in all my miles of travel THAT has never happened before!  The opposite has though, and that is miserable.  Caught by surprise, I hauled my bag off the belt and trundled through to the arrivals area where Dr H was waiting for me with a warm welcoming hug and her car.

And that was the start of a wonderful weekend.  Within half an hour we were out on Dr H’s scooter, zizzing along the coast to get my orientation and little over an hour later we were out on the Dili Hash.  I joined the walkers, and that week the route was a gentle one along the seafront just before sunset.  I am not a regular Hasher, but enjoy a decent walk if it is not too hot or rainy.  Which it pretty much rules out most Yangon Hashes time, so I am more likely to be seen at the Full Moon Hashes.  Holding a Hash in the late afternoon, as is the case in Dili, seems like a very wise strategy.  But all of that is a divergence.  The Dili Hash was a wonderful opportunity to see more of Dili in the short time I was there, have some physical activity and to meet a number of people based in TL.  And it also served to work up a good appetite for dinner on the seafront.

I slept that first night in Dili, having travelled internationally, zizzed about on a scooter, hashed, dined and even swum that day!

I woke early on the Sunday morning.  Connected with the rehydration strategy for sure.  Dr H was up and about too and after a snack we decided to “walk up to Jesus”.  This is one of the “must do” activities in Dili.  Another jaunt on Scootie took us along the coast to the foot of the steps which led up through the trees to the impressive Statue at the top. It was a hot and sticky climb, but one which gifted a real reward in its wonderful views from the vantage point.

That meant we had earned breakfast!  So we then headed beachwards to a popular spot for a relaxing and fulfilling breakfast to replace the energy used going up the hill.  Brunch was followed by a visit to the Tais (textile) market with its colourful and fascinating tribal weaves.  We both left the market clutching bags of things we had not intended to buy.

There was just time to stop off with our goodies before heading out to a friend of Dr H who had kindly included me in an invitation to lunch.  It’s just as well that shopping uses calories which have to be replaced by lunch!

By late afternoon, it was time to leave and rather than heading home, which would be inconsistent with the amount of activity crammed into the day so far, we headed back towards the Jesus Statue and to the beach. The beach was a happy place, filled with families and lone souls, all soaking in the late afternoon rays and the sound of the ocean.  It was the perfect time for sun down swimming, and I kept returning to the gentle sea, picking my way through the corals trying to avoid scratching the still sensitive post chemo soles of my feet.   As the sun sank on my last evening in Dili, cloud formations gathering over the hills with their rainy season moisture contrived to gift the most glorious sunset.

Monday morning saw a different mood.  Dr H went out on her daily pre-dawn cycle ride, and I headed to the pool for a peaceful half mile swim before breakfast on the deck, facing the sea.  Then it was back to business. Dr H had a busy schedule and a full clinic, particularly due to the peak of the dengue season.  I had the daunting task of trying to put all my gear into the little travel bag.  I had not really accumulated very much, but textiles and work bits and pieces as well as a growing heap of laundry led to a bag which was struggling to be closed and straining at the seams.

Nonetheless, packing was successfully accomplished, patients treated and in no time I was heading back to the airport for the start of my return journey to Yangon.  It had been a wonderful, action-packed, warm and fascinating to Timor Leste and it had been marvellous to see Dr H in her new posting.

Looking back to the first time I walked into her clinic and met Dr H for the first time in September 2009, and remembering the very different place I was in then feels quite bizarre.  I know for sure that I could never have imagined a day when I would be visiting her in one of the newest countries in the world.