Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TR - East Timor

East Timor & Philippines
6/14 – 6/28/11
Part #1

Sat, Jun 18/11
Dili Peace Marathon
Dili, East Timor, Oceania
Marathon #345 – Country # 108

Before I even start this report I am sure I need to answer the question “Where is East Timor”? East Timor or ‘Timor-Leste’ is located in the South Pacific – about 400Km north of Darwin, Australia. As I soon discovered it is difficult to get to – daily flights from Darwin or a few flights each week from Singapore.
Since this trip started out with the purpose of running a marathon in Manila and the Dili Marathon only got added when I realized it was one week before Manila – I was locked into flying to/from East Timor via Singapore. Adding the marathon and the destination really increased the complications and cost of the trip – but I figured I could average the costs over two races.

I had such a difficult time trying to book flights that I finally contacted a travel agent in Canada who was an authorized agent of Air Timor. He booked the entire journey for me which required multiple layovers in Singapore since we booked Singapore Air for the rest of the trip. On the outgoing leg I reached Singapore 35 hrs after leaving home in CO. I was faced with a 6-hr layover in Singapore. I had initially been informed that I would have to leave the airport (through immigration and customs) and then return to get a boarding pass and check bags with Air Timor. Thus I did not bother trying to book a ‘nap’ room at the transit hotel in the airport. Fortunately I managed to get Singapore Air to check my bags straight through to East Timor and did not have to leave the airport. Unfortunately I now had 6 hrs to kill in the airport – and all ‘nap’ rooms were full! I was so tired and in need of lying down horizontally that I slept 4 hrs on the airport floor. Finally 41 hrs after leaving home I arrived in Dili.

On the flight to Dili I sat next to a lovely young lady (Crissy) from NYC who worked for the NY Runner’s Club. She had been working with the East Timor Sports Federation to help put together programs to teach the ET youth to run. She planned to provide on-site assistance and training during the marathon and would remain for a few days after to visit schools in ET. Thankfully her driver showed up at the airport and she offered to drop me off at my hotel. She was also met by a race volunteer who provided us with a lot of details about the race. The USS Cleveland – an amphibious transport ship - was anchored in the Dili harbor and the ship had volunteered to provide medical staff for the race.

The hotel I booked was on the east side of Dili – the undeveloped area of Dili. It looked like a UN compound. 80% of the guests were UN staff and police. Everyone was carrying a gun? I felt very safe!
Independence and peace (obtained in 2002 after several years of war) are still fragile and the UN force is needed to stabilize the peace and help the country get back on its feet. There is very little infrastructure and NO tourist infrastructure! ET has not been discovered by tourists yet. It is the poorest country in Asia. The locals are very poor and live in slums w/o plumbing, AC, electricity, etc. Only the UN and embassy staffs and foreign workers (mostly from Australia) have money. Hotels are cheap ($50/night) but most are dumps. There are no American fast food restaurants and much to my surprise no Italian restaurant in the country! There are no hospitals in ET – there are some medical clinics operated by charities that offer basic medical treatment to the poor. The guide book strongly recommended that a visitor purchase trip/medical insurance because any serious illness/injury might require a med-vac to Australia or home! I also followed recommendations to update all vacinations and take medicione for malaria prevention.

I desperately tried to stay awake long enough to enjoy a nice seafood dinner on the beach across from the hotel before crashing early. I had been up for 48 hrs! On Fri morning I decided to run an ‘easy’ 5 miles along the beach road even though it was the day before the marathon. I had not run all week and needed to loosen the legs up! After breakfast it was time to explore the city and find the marathon expo at the President’s Palace. I quickly had to learn to become proficient at negotiating with the taxi drivers.
Dili is not big but it is spread out along the Timor Sea and it is too hot to walk far so taxis are the only mode of transportation. The standard fare is $1 (US) for a short ride but of course the taxi drivers try to screw all foreigners by charging double or triple. I found it to be a hassle and walked most places until the sun got too hot and then I was glad to pay almost any price to ride!

After a $3 taxi ride to the President’s Palace (located far out in the west end) I found the race expo and Melanie – the race volunteer whom I had interfaced with on the Net. She had kindly reserved Bib #1108 for me to commemorate Country #108. (marathon #s started at 1000 so #108 was not possible). There were three races – marathon, Half and 7Km. Each race had distinctive bib colors and numbers so runners could recognize competitors. There were about 100 runners in the marathon, 400 in the Half and 7,000 (mostly local kids) in the 7 Km. I didn’t recognize any runners in the marathon and I was the only American who had travelled from the USA specifically for the race. There were a few Americans who were UN staff. Melanie requested that I do an interview for a documentary being filmed on the race by an Australian crew. Most of the professionals in the country are from Australia (not a big surprise because of the ties and proximity).

I asked Melanie and the Aussies about an Italian restaurant for pasta – there is no Italian restaurant in the country but fortunately many restaurants do serve pizza and pasta. On the way back to the hotel I stopped at a tour agency to enquire about tours. I already knew that I wanted to get ‘out of town’ after the race. As I said there is no tourist infrastructure and no ‘canned’ tours. The agency could customize any tour for a fee of $180/day. Too expensive! Luckily a young Swiss couple walked in at the very same time with the same request and same comment. We huddled and decided to share the cost of a 2-day tour to the eastern regions of ET.

My next challenge was to find the ‘typical’ souvenirs that I purchase in each country –postcards, a souvenir teaspoon and a silver charm for Nicole’s charm bracelet. I knew it was going to be a BIG challenge. There are no tourist shops. There is a Tais market that sells local handicraft and tais (a special woven fabric) and local carvings but no cards and no spoons? I found postcards in a gift shop at the best hotel in town and lucked in at the same gift shop with a silver charm. The cards were $2.50 – each! There is no mail delivery in ET. I had to go to the only Post Office in the city to buy stamps ($1/card) and return later to personally hand the cards to a postal clerk! No mail drop! Any bets on whether they ever make it to the US?

A souvenir teaspoon was the biggest challenge. After 3 days of searching I accepted the conclusion that they don’t exist in ET. I remembered what my solution was in Moldova – the poorest country in Europe – where they also didn’t exist. The few jewelry stores didn’t have a real silver teaspoon so I went to the largest supermarket in Dili – a local version of a Super Wal-Mart – and bought a stainless teaspoon and had it engraved with “East Timor”! Maddog can be resourceful when needed.

After a basic pasta dinner at my hotel restaurant I retired early. The race started at 6:30 am – a little late I thought for such warm climes. The official reason was that they had to wait for daylight because there were few street lights (and they didn’t work) and the roads were full of potholes. Fortunately my hotel was only 1 mile from the start line because taxis don’t operate during night/dark hours because of safety concerns. I needed to walk/jog to the start line anyways to get my muscles warmed and loosened up. On the short jog along the beach road at 5:45 am (in the dark) I was joined by two local runners who were running the Half. I didn’t know what the temp was – there are no local TV stations because locals can’t afford a TV but I guess the temps were in the high 70s for the 6:30 am start. Surprisingly the race started very close to the official time!

I didn’t believe that I was in good enough shape (yet) to run the entire marathon. Since there were water stations located every 3 Km my race strategy was to run between stations and then walk for 1 min through each station. The course was a Half marathon loop that started and ended in front of the Governor’s Palace. The marathon and Half started together so I had lots of company for the 1st loop. I reached the 2nd water stop at 6km in 36:13 and a split of 5:49/Km. I was averaging just under a 10 min/mile pace. Surprisingly there were a lot of spectators along the course. Around 10Km I was running behind a lovely young Aussie lass who was running the Half. I had curiously noted as we passed through groups of spectators that many of them were laughing? At first I thought it was because the Aussie lass was wearing spandex shorts? But as we separated some distance I realized that they were laughing at Maddog? And then I started listening to the comments such as “get a shovel and dig a hole”? Life expectancy in ET for males is 64 years – they were shocked to see an ‘old man’ – a man who should be dead – running a marathon! The laughs and jeers continued for the entire 1st loop but I soon learned to ignore then.

I passed 15 Km in 1:31:49 and a split of 6:12/km. It was 8am and getting HOT. As I finished the 1st loop in 2:11:37 and a split of 6:15 I was pleased with my time but knew the 2nd loop would not be as fast. It reminded me of the recent marathon in Guam when the temps became brutal in the 2nd Half! And suddenly I was alone. I didn’t start passing runners until about 27Km when the temps had reached the high 80s! And the laughs and jeers from the spectators started to change to applause and cheers as the old fart/dead man started to pass local runners half his age! By 30KM -3:13:03 and a split of 7:19 I was overheated and my pace was slowing drastically. I threw water over my head and neck in an effort to cool down. My legs were fading because of the heat and I decided to shorten the cycle to run 2Km –walk 1 min and then run to a water station and walk 1 min again. I was able to hold that cycle and average about 11:30/mile. A sag wagon/ambulance followed me for the final 7 Km. It unnerved me because I was afraid they might try to pull me off the course even though I was staying behind two young local runners who were half my age. By the time I reached 40Km in 4:30:22 and a split of 8:05/Km I had an ambulance and 4 motorcycle cops following me? I couldn’t understand why? I couldn’t be in last place?
I had passed several runners in the final 10Km who had succumbed to the heat – surely they had to be behind me and in more trouble than I?

I was determined to keep the wasted old legs shuffling and not walk again until I crossed the finish line in 4:47:15. A pretty nurse from the USS Cleveland latched on to me and insisted on staying with me until I recovered and felt better. She applied ice packs to my head and neck to lower my body temp and mixed me a recovery drink to replace electrolytes. It took about 10 min for my body temp to lower and to feel normal again – but very tired! When I finally dragged my sore legs and tired ass over to the finish line for the mandatory finish line photo the course and finish line had been closed down? Was I the last runner to finish? I didn’t find out till the results were posted two days later. Thankfully I didn’t win that dubious honor! One male runner finished in last place – 6 min behind me! I wondered what happened to all the runners I passed in the final 15Km until I learned that 115 runners started the marathon and only 41 finished! I did finish in 4th and last place in my AG – 50+. That didn’t bother me since I was the oldest runner in the race!

Before grabbing a taxi back to the hotel I stopped at the tour agency to confirm that –‘Yes”- the 2-day tour to the eastern regions of ET was confirmed and they would pick me up at 8 am on Sun.

Back to the hotel for a hot shower and a few beer. For dinner I walked across the road to a small restaurant on the beach and enjoyed a delicious whole red snapper grilled over an open fire (washed down with beer of course) for $17! The fish cost $7 and 2 (large) beer cost $10. That’s less than it cost to send 5 postcards?

I was eager to ‘get out of town’ and explore the countryside so went to bed early. I waited in the hotel lobby at 8am for a tour guide – and waited- and waited! The tour agency was closed on Sun so I had no way to contact them but I understood at 10am that there wasn’t going to be any tour! I wasn’t surprised but I was disappointed. I had already checked out of the hotel so I decided to move to a different hotel on the west side of Dili – more hotels, bars and restaurants in that area. The tour agency did track me down there to inform me that the guide was sick and could they reschedule the tour to start on Mon. Unfortunately NO since I was leaving ET on Tue. Bummer – I would have to spend another 2 days in Dili and not get to explore the countryside!

Those final 2 days were long and boring. I walked around to take some more photos of the city and tried to find a teaspoon until I eventually accepted the solution described earlier. Since I had lots of spare time I was able to start my trip report while details were still fresh in my mind. I treated myself to a 2-hr deep tissue Thai massage for $30! Wish I could get those prices back home. Finally Tue arrived and my flight left in the afternoon for Singapore.

I had a 15-hr overnight layover in Singapore and had booked a hotel near Clarke Quay. What a difference! Singapore is so modern and pristine clean! And much more expensive. A delightful seafood dinner and beer cost three times the price I had been paying in ET. The next leg of my journey was a 3-hr flight to Manila on Wed morning. And a good place to end this part of the story.

To be continued – stay tuned!

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