Saturday, January 24, 2015

[DILI] The Atauro Day Trip

I only had two things in mind coming to Dili: meet Jesus; and go to Atauro. Coming from an archipelago of more than 7000 islands, I'm pretty hard to impress. The thing is, there's nothing much to see in Dili and since you're already there, might as well see what the island has to offer. Atauro is part of Dili but you don't have a lot of transportation options.

The Berlin Nakroma ferry is the cheapest way to get to and from the island. According to rumors, you can get a round-trip USD 11 fare for that, but I wouldn't know for sure because I opted for a tour package. That ferry is the common form of transportation to get to the island. Since there's just one round-trip per day, it gets filled up pretty fast. Book your tickets in advance if you choose this option. I'm not even sure if it has daily trips. I think I've read somewhere that it only sails on Saturdays.

I sent a message to two tour companies on Facebook. One was offering two dives for USD 180 while the other was USD 120 for a snorkeling day tour. I chose the day tour because I don't have a diving license. I find the deep blue sea terrifying, you see. I reserved a slot with Compass Charters and paid them on the day of the trip before we ventured into the deep.

Most of the Caucasians you see in Dili are a mix of Australians and Portuguese. Darwin is just an hour away by plane and East Timor was once a Portuguese colony. That pretty much explains everything. In fact, Portuguese nationals enjoy special immigration privileges along with Indonesians. On the day of our trip, there were four Portuguese, five Aussies, a Kiwi, and a Swiss. I was the only Pinoy but since everyone assumes that I am one of them whenever I’m in the Malay sprachbund, it didn't really matter.

I admit I was surprised by the size of the water taxi, which is basically a speed boat with makeshift seats in the form of water coolers. The trip took an hour and a half amidst strong waves enough to make you fear for your life. Newsflash: the ocean makes you feel that way. As with most boat trips, you might think that the trip would be shorter once you see the island from afar. This isn't always the case, especially with Atauro with the dock on the other side.

The island is beautiful alright and I'd say that it is worth the trip. Remember that it's actually inhabited and is the more popular of the two island destinations in Timor-Leste. The other is Jaco on the eastern tip of the island. Atauro gets more tourists not only because of its proximity to Dili but also because of its coral reefs. Considered as part of a coral triangle stretching down to Australia, expect a coral overload once you put your snorkel on.

Accommodation comes in the form of Eco-villages which provide you with the bare necessities. There is enough electricity to charge your gadgets but Wi-Fi is unheard of. For those who opt for a day tour, you will arrive at around 9:30 and go back to Dili at 3 PM. The first activity on the island will be breakfast. Around an hour later, you go back to the boat to don your snorkel and fins. Game!

For Compass Charters, those who dive and those who snorkel share the same boat. In our case, only the Swiss was diving so we just dropped him and his dive master along the way before we went to the snorkeling area. The first dive took place right after breakfast. The weather was schizophrenic at best. And so, how was the dive? You know me and my weaknesses when it comes to strenuous physical activities.

If I were to give you an honest evaluation, it would be all about me and not the dive. But okay, fine. I have been to Coron, okay. I don't really enjoy snorkeling because I find wearing fins too stressful, not to mention I hate having to breathe through snorkels. In any case, Atauro is nice, but marine life looks the same to me. There will always be a school of Nemo's friends, Dory's friends, and those corals that look like pink and purple human brains.

If you are in Dili, then by all means go to Atauro. If you are not in Dili but would like to come just for Atauro, the sad truth is that you can find a similar place somewhere in the region that is not as inaccessible and as expensive. What does Atauro have to offer then, to convince you to go there? As mentioned, it is part of a coral triangle, which means the diversity of marine life you see there is just awesome, while the area it covers under the sea is just vast.

The water's depth also varies with sudden drops known to be common and rather terrifying, at least for me. Not that you would fall all the way down though. Salty sea water makes you float, remember? Even so, staring down the abyss would more or less give you the creeps. The Aussies couldn't get over the abundance of fish they saw but because I was not as agile, I didn't get to appreciate it that much.

This will always be my curse given how unconscious I am of my health and fitness. What happened at Atauro was five minutes of snorkeling and 20 minutes of being dragged by the life buoy attached to the boat. In the end, I actually just let the life buoy do the swimming while I looked down and took videos with my Pentax as the Aussies were enjoying the view closer to the reef. Hooray, me! What followed was lunch for about an hour and a half.

The afternoon snorkeling session was rather eventless for me because I just lacked the energy to swim. The area in question was also way deeper and full of jellyfish which looked like little sinister plastic bags eager to sabotage you. The water was deep blue in color and seeing the profound crevices down below made my imagination run wild, leading to some cramps and an alternate reality where a giant whirlpool suddenly formed and sucked me down to the bottom of the ocean. Fuck you, wild imagination.

I decided to just let the life buoy drag me around, which means not many photos and videos were taken as a consequence. Before I knew it, the trip was over. We had 15 minutes to refresh on the island and then we headed back to Dili on a rough boat trip. It felt as though the ocean was going to flip us upside down any moment. The Swiss, the Kiwi, two Australians, and three Portuguese were left behind for an overnight stay of the island, which meant less people on the boat for the return trip.

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