Observing Timor Leste without taking photos

Somehow the driver hears the signal despite the noise. Heavy music is beating inside and there’s the din of the traffic outside, but the driver stops when a passenger taps a coin against the metal rail on the low ceiling of the minibus: his ears finely attuned to this frequency. I soon learnt the system during my first ride on one of these ‘microlets’, the 12 seater minibuses running set routes around the city of Dili in Timor Leste (East Timor). I’d waited for the one I needed, a Number 12, on the Avenida Marginal, the road that runs parallel to the beach, separated from it by a border of gardens where people sell coconuts and fruit and others sit and eat them.

I was on my way to the Cristo Rei statue that overlooks the bay from a prominent hill along the coast. There’s an inevitable comparison with the world-famous Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro, though this one here is definitely the poor relation.

Most Microlets are painted in a graffiti-like manner, bright and gaudy, with names such as One Love. They all have a number painted on them indicating the route they follow. Soon enough the right one came along, stopped and blew its horn; a reverberating sound that continued several seconds, to attract passengers. I got in and banged my head on the low ceiling while moving inside towards an empty seat on one of the two benches running the short length of the vehicle. My stop was also the terminus and I got out at the end of this stretch of coast road, by a beach, with the statue above on a hill, looking out across the bay to the capital city. I walked along the road to the end, which then became a track. When I asked a couple sitting under the trees if this was the way to ‘Cristo’ they nodded and waved me on. A couple of young men were fishing from a sea wall, just with line and bait. Who needs a rod? I went further and came to the corner where even the track ended, waves crashed against rocks, and the statue was somewhere above but there was no path to climb, just a rock face, painted with graffiti, so I walked back the way I’d come. This time I looked at the map on my phone and it was clear that the path up to Cristo Rei started well before the end of the road, in fact pretty much where the microlet had dropped me, half an hour earlier. I had timed it to make the climb after the most intense heat of the day. It was 5pm. This was also the time chosen by a lot of people who used the climb for exercise. The first part of the route is a gentle ascent along a wide path with 14 shrines carved into the rock. Each is one of the Stations of the Cross, the story of Christ’s ascent of Calvary bearing the cross on which he was to die. The climb doesn’t start in earnest until Jesus Falls the Second Time, then the steps steadily steepen. At the top I gazed at the statue, took in the view of the coastline back to the city and chatted with a young man who had run up and down several times for his daily exercise. A few other people sat around, some taking photographs. Unlike its Brazilian counterpart, it was not surrounded by throngs of tourists. Dili is not Rio. Its beach no Copacabana. Tiny Timor Leste isn’t Brazil, either. Nor is it like nearby Bali, for that matter. It’s so well off the tourist map, with so few visitors, that even in the capital city westerners acknowledge each other with a nod, a hello, or even stop to chat.

Ironically, my journey on the microlet was inspired by reading about a trip with a donkey. I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’. It had been on my list after it appeared as recommended reading several times; then my visit to the author’s last home in Samoa finally clinched it. This early travel book is beautifully written in a manner which reminded me of another favourite: Laurie Lee’s poetic autobiographical journal of his travels in Spain. Stevenson’s level of detail impressed me too; his powers of observation providing the raw material for his skilful literary expression. It was this that inspired me to go to the statue that day. I decided to open my eyes wider, notice the finer details of what was around me, so that I could include them in my own travel notes to add spice and flavour. I hadn’t taken many photos in Timor Leste nor in other places on this journey. Over years of travelling I’ve come to realise that most photos are a disappointment (well, most of mine are anyway). That’s because the person taking the photo is trying to collect more than a two dimensional image is capable of capturing. The feeling of the moment, the heat of the sun, the sea breeze, the aroma of food, the music in the background: all these things are part of the picture but cannot be part of the photo. So the images turn out ‘flat’. Instead, I prefer to savour the moment, rather than become distracted from the moment by trying to capture the moment. When writing to friends about my travels they often requested photos but I had to disappoint them. The photos I did take were not representative of the journey; they skewed the story and highlighted only those things that were photographable. For example, there were no photos of my run in the dark before dawn: does that mean it wasn’t worth reporting? If it can’t be posted on Instagram, is it not valid? If an event isn’t published on Facebook, does it not exist? Just as history is written by the victors, social media is dominated by the photogenic. Just as the vanquished don’t have a voice, those without photos don’t have a story to tell. Or so it seems.

When I did have an enthusiasm for taking photos, many years ago, back in the days of 35mm film, I learnt a few things. Because of the limited number of photos I could take with a few rolls of 36-shot film, I learnt to be selective. Many a time I chose not to take a shot, to save precious film for better opportunities later. This made me a bit more discerning about which photos to take from everything I saw. However, my main insight was that I saw things very differently when I had a camera in my hand. I was then looking for colours and shapes, for interesting contrasts, for an elegant composition. I realised that the process was better than the result; the intense state of observation more vivid than the Kodachrome slides that came back weeks later in the mail, in yellow boxes. I knew that I would still have had a great day of taking photos even if I discovered at the end of it that there had been no film in the camera all along. So that day in Dili, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson (who travelled with only his notebooks), I went out with my camera, not to take photos, but to help me to see more sharply, to notice things that are easy to pass by; in short, to observe more clearly. The process was still paramount; the experience of seeing, there and then, in the moment, was the main thing. The results weren’t photos but things to write about, to add into my narratives, to add more texture and colour to words.

So, sorry, but there are no photos here. A friend who had asked me to email photos to accompany my travel notes wondered how well the images in her mind’s eye matched the reality, certain that hers were inferior to what I’d seen. My response was that the images in her imagination were probably much better than those exposed to my own eyes. A novel allows the reader to see the characters and landscapes in their own way, then the film version disappoints, because it is never quite as imagined, and necessarily abridged; yes, perhaps visually well crafted but nonetheless somehow failing to convey the spirit of the novel. They say a picture can paint a thousand words. It’s also true that words can inspire a thousand different images of a scene or event. Let me write the words, then you can use them to fire your imagination. The bottom line: I offer only words, no pictures.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.

Read more travel blogs and David’s travelling lifestyle business.

Timor Leste

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?”

Robert Louis Stevenson

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Henry Miller

“The photograph reverses the purpose of travel, which until now had been to encounter the strange and unfamiliar.”

Marshall McLuhan

Read more travel quotes.