Two of my friends clung to the side of the swaying boat. They glued their eyes to the horizon, and commanded their stomachs not to hurl. Meanwhile, I sat at the bow sipping a coconut — looking back now and then to see if they’d chummed the waters.
We were one hour into our boat ride to Atauro Island, a sliver of tropical paradise off of the coast of East Timor. According to an article from The Guardian, Atauro Island hosts some of the most biologically diverse waters in the world. This planned trip to Atauro was one of the main reasons my friends and I took freediving lessons. We wanted to see the reefs without having to worry about the logistics of scuba gear.
We checked into Barry’s Place, a homestay with thatched-roof bungalows owned and run by an Australian man and his Timorese wife. Everything at Barry’s Place is completely off-grid – amenities featured a self-composting toilet system, solar-panel powered fans, and a shower made from a bucket with ten holes punched into the bottom. To bathe, you scooped up water with the makeshift-colander and hung it up quickly before it drained. For $35/day, we’d get three meals cooked on-site and a room with a seaside view.
Coming from the sweltering heat of Dili where six of us shared a single bedroom the night before, Barry’s Place felt more luxurious than the Ritz Carlton. You can’t put a price on a fan, privacy, and silence from the sounds of neighborhood animals being chopped into dinner. Back at the compound, entertainment options consisted of playing ping-pong on a wooden table laden with spider sacs, swatting malaria-infested mosquitoes with an electric swatter, and pitying a cage of rabbits that the residents called “Bunny Alcatraz.”
Freediving in Atauro, East Timor
Finally free to explore, my friends and I slipped on our snorkel gear and set off to see what existed under the sea surrounding Atauro.
I finned past beds of seagrass and minefields of urchins. A few hundred feet further, the seagrass ceded to technicolor corals, bombies and anemones with their resident clownfish. Out in the blue, I caught flashes of silver scales.
We kicked out away from shore with a freediving buoy MacGyvered from an inner tube, a basket, and some marked rope. With little electricity nearby let alone cell phone reception, my nerves started nudging me to stay near the shore. What if an accident happened? But I kept swimming– craving the high felt after every dive into the deep, the space where all senses are muted.
An offshore current helped push us out to an area where it was deep enough to drop a line 27 meters down to the sea floor. I ducked and swam down along the line. I pushed against my body’s buoyancy until I hit 10 meters, the depth where my body becomes neutrally buoyant. After that, I was weightless. The pressure of the water compressed my chest and I continued swimming slowly to 20 meters – my favorite depth.
This depth feels like you’re being hugged by the sea. This depth has no deadlines, student loan payments, political problems, malaria, or bunnies crammed into a rusty cage. At this depth, it’s just your mind, your body, and a stretch of endless blue.
Many humans tend to crave – or at least appreciate – escaping landlocked woes. I am no exception.
Back at the shallow part of the reef, visibility stretched beyond fifteen meters. Clown fish darted in and out of their snow-white anemone homes, protecting their young so fiercely, the clown fish attacked my camera and bit my legs. Black and white striped sea snakes swam through the water like a ribbon in the wind, defying everything I know about physics (which is, admittedly, nothing). On the odd occasion that I poked my head out of the sea, I saw storm clouds lurking over Atauro – but the sea stayed glassy.
After a fresh dinner of vegetables, fish, and warm bread rolls, we tucked into our bungalows for the night. I didn’t know it then, but among the Dutch crew, I’d gotten a lousy reputation of being a stinky girl thanks to an article I wrote in a magazine titled, “Confessions of a Dirty Camper.” In this literary masterpiece, I admitted that I sometimes go five days without showering on a camping trip. But while the Dutch princesses crammed into their rooms together — breathing in one another’s C02, methane, or whatever else they put in those Dutch crepes, I got a bed all to myself.
Take note: sometimes there are perks of being the smelly kid.
My bungalow was elevated just enough for a family of chickens to rest underneath, who craved shade in the day and shelter after sunset. A huge gecko clung to the side of my wall. In East Timor, the locals call geckos “tecki” after the chirps they make.
Teck-i. Teck-i. Teck-i.
In the middle of the night, I woke to go to the bathroom. A stray dog and her two puppies slept outside of the stall. I startled the feral mother and she started barking. Afraid, I locked myself into the bathroom and tried to remember if rabies kill you within 24 hours or two hours of getting bitten? until one of the staff members came walking by with a flashlight and shooed her away.
And as I’d soon learn, East Timor is not a place you want to get bit and/or wounded.
Hiking Across Atauro
The next morning, we piled into the back of a pickup truck that would drop us at a trailhead. Then, we’d take the trail to the other side of Atauro. Atauro is only about 13 miles long, so it’s easy to traverse the narrow part of it.
The sky started to drizzle so I threw my backpack in the cab of the car and hopped in. I’d lost my raincover for my backpack years ago and haven’t gotten around to replacing it.
The sky dumped buckets onto my friends sitting in the tuck bed. They climbed out of the truck more soaked than sorority girls competing for hot wings at a Spring Break wet t-shirt contest. With all the rain, the trail transformed into a muddy stream. In a last-ditch attempt to keep my backpack dry, I topped my backpack with a plastic grocery store bag. Mud soaked through our shoes and we hiked to the sounds of rain and squelching until we found shelter in cave.
When the rain cleared, we trudged through the muddy trails past tropical forest until we got to a village at the bottom of a steep hill. Our instinct was to make the wrong turn of course – until a group of locals laughed and sent us off in the right direction. A few fence hops later, the trail weaved us through grassland along a stormy sea. We felt the remoteness reserved only for places that exist when you must get lost to find them.
Finally, we reached the village where we’d be staying at a homestay called Mario’s Place for the next few days. Mario is a Timorese man who once worked for Barry’s Place and was inspired enough to develop a homestay of his own. Still soaked, we peeled off our damp clothing and settled on the homestay’s big wooden balcony. A gang of potbellied pigs ran up us – a crew that would be hanging around us for the time we were there.
I once read through the comments section of an article about Atauro. In it, people urged the author to take down the article because they feared that Atauro would be ruined by tourism and an influx of people wanting to experience its beauty. I empathize with these worries. The last thing Atauro needs is some monstrosity of a hotel (like the ones that have infected so much of Bali) and tourists who wanna take the baby turtle home as a souvenir — hey! He’ll look great in the fish tank next to grandpa’s Playboy collection!
If you venture here, come without any expectations of resort-style amenities. It’s a place to disconnect and appreciate the magic of untouched reefs, quiet evenings without blue-screen devices, and a simple way of living. Don’t demand that it change to fit your comfort or convenience.