When I came to Timor on a work trip in October 2016, I visited Atauro Island – a palm-fringed oasis, all wooden canoes on glassy seas and fresh-cut coconuts and tiny pocketed mountain villages and rat-rat-rat tuk tuks on dusty empty roads. As I sat at the back of the boat on the return trip to Dili, I reflected on how lucky I was to visit: I never would have gone to Atauro were it not for this Timor trip, I thought, and I can’t see myself ever coming back.
And there I was last weekend, sitting on exactly the same boat, on my way back to Atauro.
Beloi beach, Atauro Island
My housemate Laura – who, spookily, I actually met that first Atauro trip, waiting at the dock for the same water taxi – came home one night last week and invited me on the long weekend trip she’d just booked: three days of scuba diving off Beloi beach, Atauro. I glanced at my bank account and said a nervous yes, mentally tallying dollars as I dialled the number to reserve my spot on the trip.
And, of course, I was so glad I did. The three days beachside will totally sustain me through the next fortnight of penny-pinching (note to self: pick a cheaper hobby), and I’ve returned to Dili soothed and sun-drenched, and ready to throw myself into another week of work, traffic, heat and coffee.
We stayed at the Beloi beach campsite of Compass Charters – one of Timor’s three dive companies, and the one that runs the water taxi between Dili and Atauro. After booking my spot on the phone – boat there and back, two night at camp, two dives oh no wait actually let’s just do four, why not – I shuffled into their office after work on Thursday, drained my bank account, and secured my weekend. We were up before 7am on Friday for the boat over – a ripping little hour-and-a-half on spraying sea – and briefed, geared up and in the water by 11am for our first dive.
Compass’s tropical-luxe beachside camp
I’m a brand-new open water diver – the most inexperienced level, and I just finished my course last weekend (after a week living with Laura and her enthusiasm for the sport I cracked and decided to get my ticket) – but it was no problem for Compass; they had at least two different groups every dive for different levels of experience, I never dived in a group larger than four people, and once I was even solo with smiling instructor Luke. And it was beautiful. Atauro has some of the world’s most biodiverse reefs – dense leafy coral choked with tight knots of brilliant feeding fishes; hefty sea slugs lolling proudly in sand; a flash of silver as a school of fat snapper streams past in the blue – and even as a depth-restricted beginner I was able to see more than I could even process (and that fact would be true of my final day’s snorkelling session, where my budget didn’t quite meet another boat dive but I still saw, with my fins and bikini, just as much as I did in the depths).
As well as diving and snorkelling, I spent big chunks of the weekend reading (I’m four years late on The Goldfinch, so I’m going to make up for lost time with enthusiasm – what a book!), eating and drinking, and talking to the other divers – and realising, from that, how thrilling I find it to be around people who care so much about what they do. It’s intimidating, sure – despite my near-constant state of enthusiasm I wonder if I’ll ever muster the passion for anything that my sister has for football, or that my drummer friend has for jazz, or that these divers have for the underwater world (sun-streaked Luke: “Diving’s how I make all my money, it’s what I spend all my money on, it’s what I do most days, and it’s the only thing I think about when I’m not diving”) – but it’s utterly energising, too. That drummer friend was the one who told me to surround myself with people I think are better than me – and sitting back in a deck chair, well-thumbed ocean life reference book open in my lap, listening quietly to the ping-pong chatter of Luke and Laura trading snatches of story of how they found the mandarinfish and seeing a crowd of grinning faces turned to them with shameless joy, I felt utterly settled and contented – and surrounded by very, very good people.
The Goldfinch; the sunset
On the boat back to Dili, I felt as lucky as I did six months ago – when I was returning from an island trip I never thought I’d take. This time, Atauro’s a little less foreign, a little less inconceivable, a little closer to home (more for that fact that home has moved than anything else) – but still just as exciting; still just as good a reminder of how lucky I am to be here.And a humbling reminder that try as I might, with all my mental tallying, I can’t always plan or anticipate what comes next – and that if I let myself drift with the current, I could end up somewhere like here.