Meeting a king is an art. Despite appearances, it’s not simply a case of coming out with a well-worn platitude, dropping a quick curtsy and trying not to sneeze. Sadly it’s an art which there are few opportunities to rehearse.
With this in mind I was fascinated to hear about the tiny Kingdom of Boti, an area in the hills of West Timor. This, I decided, was the perfect chance to brush up on my king-meeting skills, and perhaps see a little of this infamous Indonesian island along the way.
It’s amazing how a good idea, taken half way across the world, can suddenly seem so horribly wrong. My doubts began at Kupang airport, as we sprinted nervously across the dusty landing strip, scanning the skies for incoming traffic. The “Allo Meesterr” mob ambushed me even before I was out of the building, and I decided to go with Jeffri, who was keen to point out that his hotel was listed no.13 in the Lonely Planet guide. Avoiding the temptation to ask if we could take a look at numbers 1 through 12, I piled into the back of his cab.
“I’m here to meet the King,” I boasted, as he casually played an automotive game of Chicken with the other drivers. “Oh yes. That’s very good,” he said, in the kind of absent-minded response my grandmother gave when I tried to explain microwave cooking. Ego deflated, I tried to relax and let him concentrate on driving me into Kupang, yet another third world city meandering it’s way out of the Twentieth Century.
The humidity is drenching, and its history as a Dutch port for sandalwood has long since been concreted over. I spent just one night in Kupang during which time I was repeatedly asked by locals “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”, leading me to suspect I was part of some giant “Tourist Time-Motion” study by the Indonesian government. Later, though, I learned that these two English phrases were drilled into many Indonesians in their schooling.
Realising this, I began to sympathise, as my French teachers left me with a similar problem. There’s only a certain amount of conversational mileage in “The rabbit is very fierce, but the dog is very tall”. There was no time to dawdle in Kupang though, much as I enjoyed telling these innocently credulous people that I came from a place called “Bread”, and that I was going to a place called “Toaster”. I had a royal appointment to keep.
Road journeys are slow and exhausting in Timor, but the views across the palm forests make it all worthwhile. Every now and then the bus will swing around a corner throwing up beautiful vistas of untouched sun-drenched jungle, rolling across the contours toward the glimmering ocean. Looking at these peaceful panoramas, it’s hard to believe that Timor’s turbulent past has kept it in the news for decades, occasionally grabbing a headline in the “Rest of the World” sections of the more unwieldy newspapers.
The island lies at the Eastern end of Indonesia, and when the country gained independence, the Eastern half of Timor wanted out. If the Indonesian government had conceded, it would have opened the door for other areas of the country who were less than keen on the idea of a unified Indonesian state. As a consequence East Timor was stamped on hard. There have been tens of thousands of Indonesian troops there ever since, and the human rights record is less than rosy.
Recent political upheavals are promising better things for the future of East Timor. Besides, West Timor has been more stable, and the troubles of its neighbour rarely spill over the border. At least, that’s what I told myself as I eyed the sidearms of the police at numerous checkpoints.
Before making the final 30 kilometres to Boti we overnighted at Hotel Anda, in the hospitality of proprietor Pak Johannes. His epileptic colour scheme pervades the place and all it’s bizarre fixtures, from the orange corrugated-iron helicopter on the roof (put together by Pak himself upon the American withdrawal from Saigon), to the purple concrete replicas of two Australian frigates in his backyard. All of the furniture and fittings were handmade, and by the looks of it hand-painted. The overall impression seemed to be the result of a DIY session with a headful of LSD.
“I’ve come to see the king of Boti,” I explained. “Who?” Replied Pak. Realising that I was at a loss for an answer to even this question, I gave up and went to bed.
The big day came and I donned the only shirt I had with a collar. Finally we arrived at the village of Boti, outside which a large sign warned visitors that, since the villagers have very little contact with foreign people, they find the sight of exposed white flesh disturbing. Looking at myself, I decided this was no problem. The long open-topped truck journey had turned my white flesh to the kind of blotchy purple colour usually seen only in medical journals.
Beyond the gates to Boti lay the closest I’ve come to heaven on earth. The temperature was mountain cool and shaded by a thick covering of verdant forest. Accommodation took the form of dome-shaped thatched huts called “lopos”. The largest and most finely crafted lopo belonged to the king and queen. If I’d been wearing a tie, now would have been the time to straighten it.
After a tour of the village, dusk began to settle, and beautiful fireflies emerged from the forest, cunningly acting as a diversion for the legions of hungry mosquitoes. Fires were lit and food was cooked, sending wafts of sweet-smelling smoke into the still night air. Our royal audience was at hand. The evening meal was served, but as we tucked into our delicious popcorn and spinach (local specialties), the king entered. Taken unawares, my first and only attempt at a royal greeting went disastrously wrong. With nowhere to put my bowl and spoon, a handshake was out of the question, and through a mouthful of spinach my eloquent salutation turned into a muffled grunt. Crippled by sunburn, my bow looked more like an upset stomach than a mark of respect.
Despite having been in the fields all day, the King didn’t seem to mind my incompetence. Clad in his traditional ikat sarong, the lines on his face testified to a lifetime in the scorching Timorese sun, and added to his sense of regality and wisdom. This, I decided, is what royalty should be: overworked and underpaid. The King of Boti has dominion over three villages in the area, and spends an equal amount of time in each, making sure that the work is being done correctly, and that the customs are followed.
His relationship with the official government of Indonesia is ambiguous. To be honest, I doubt whether they even know he’s here, or would care if they did. Perhaps this explains the overwhelming sense of peace in Boti. It’s as though the place has been bypassed by the world. As the rest of us rushed headlong into the Twentieth Century, time quietly stopped here. It dawned on me that, by our very presence in Boti, we were winding up the clock, moving the hands, and returning time to this lost outpost.
The following morning we began the gruelling journey back to Soe, after waving goodbye to the King (my farewell was, I’m glad to say, far more graceful than my introduction). Walking along the dried-up river bed under the baking sun, I knew I was carrying a small piece of Boti away, as would every visitor, until there’s nothing left. My journey began to feel like a loss of innocence, and a return to the dirt and noise of Kupang took on an extra dimension.
In all honesty I feel no more prepared to meet a king now than I ever have. I’m not that concerned, though; all the curtsies and tiaras in the world can’t compare to seeing a place like Boti. A land fit for a king if ever I saw one.