Of course the prision can't help but look nice from the outside in a tropical country

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When I decided to take my own advice and re-visit Timor-Leste, I didn’t expect to find myself in a dark suffocating prison. Travel is not just about beaches, bars and mountain tops; its also about learning the history of the country and its people. I am sure the 13 odd government employees I brought with me to learn about post-conflict land administration and conflict management were hoping for the former. I can’t name where the officials are from as elements of their own government might not be happy we discussed ethnic reconciliation. If you know me well, I am sure you can guess.

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The Indonesian era prison is actually home to a permanent exhibit on the Reconciliation process that occurred in Timor after independence, called the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). It is tricky business getting people together to admit to crimes they committed against their neighbors, but it’s an exercise that’s vital to forgiving and moving on to a more peaceful society. With war raging in Afghanistan, and post-war countries like Iraq trying to move on, examples like the process in Timor are a great way for travelers to gain a greater appreciation for the difficulties so many countries face around the world.

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The family greets you as you enter the mildew soaked buildings

If you are planning a trip to Timor-Leste I recommend a visit to the exhibition, but if you can’t get away just yet here is short tour from my visit.

Community meetings and reconciliation

The CAVR was asked to investigate less serious crimes and bring victims and persecutors together to reconcile. Most people wanted reconciliation, but also rehabilitation for victims, engagement with refugees, and grassroots reconciliation based on both traditional methods and involving the Church.

About 1,371 reconciliations were facilitated by CAVR between perpetrators and victims of less serious crimes.

Before the (CRP) I felt ashamed to walk around the village. Now when I walk around, I feel freer. People didn’t talk to me sometimes before. Now I feel that people are more open. Before I felt a weight on me when I went to work in the fields.

As you walk though the prison various rooms are set up with displays showing the history of not only the CAVR but also a history of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Presentation by one of the members of the CAVR and director of the exhibit

Description of the Isolation Cell

As you move through the exhibit it is impossible not to be moved by the pain and suffering experienced by the Timorese people. And yet amid all of this suffering there is a message of hope, justice and peace. Nothing can become  so bad as to be beyond redemption as there is also an equal ability of forgiveness by human beings.

Of course this does not make it any easier and some of the images are graphic and disturbing. Such as the one below (scroll fast if you do not want to see).

Inside the prison cells

At the end of the tour you are brought to a small garden to discuss what you have seen, share your feelings and work through what is at once a shame for human beings but also a model of triumph and forgiveness. As the humid breeze  brushes your hair, the palm trees groan under the weight of gigantic coconuts, and the twittering of birds fill your ears you are reminded that nature has a capacity to revert to its original self, as do we humans after tragedy has stuck. The final message the tour has for you is not one of the past, but of the present. On the wall leading out is a question, scrolled in illuminating moss and algae: “What will you do for human rights now?”

Its a good question. Hopefully more travelers take it to heart and leave something positive wherever they go.

The CAVR exhibition is open to the public each working day on Balide Rd in Dili. Tour guides are available in English and Tetun. Bookings and further information are available at: tel 3310315, email chegatours@gmail.com

Have a strong feeling about the CARV? What do you think about a traveler’s responsibilities? Leave a comment below.

Every time I travel through Singapore I am disappointed. Compared to the surrounding countries Singapore is a bland wasteland of identical shopping malls and artificially created tourist attractions. It lacks the gritty cultural depth filling the cracks of its less prosperous neighbors. A bold statement? Indeed, but one backed up by countless uninspiring trips through the small city state. For the first time visitor to Asia, Singapore is a great stepping stone to getting acclimated to this diverse area of the world. But for the experienced Asia hand it can easily turn into an exercise of waiting for the water to boil as the seconds tick by and time stretches out.

You may be questioning why I even bothered to go back to Singapore at all. This time I was routed through Singapore to wait for a visa while on a work trip to Timor-Leste and then Sri Lanka. As you can see I have a bias for rougher countries, but I was determined to make the best of my work funded stopover. As a result I give you my short list to making Singapore an interesting place. If you’re looking for Singapore hotel accommodation then you’ll be happy there are some beautiful places to stay to make it all slightly more interesting.

Be Adventurous

Packed into a small minivan I exchanged uncomfortable looks with 10 other foreign tourists as we sped away from the train station and glided easily onto Singapore’s well oiled highway. The cute girl in the station helpfully offered advice on a free bus service to the Singapore Zoo. A few minutes later I was paying a complete stranger money for an entrance ticket to the Night Safari in exchange for a free ride. “You don’t have a sign on the van, man,” a young pseudo backpacker announced from the sidewalk. His mother looked uncomfortable. “You guys are getting ripped off,” he yelled as the door slammed shut and we sped away.

Mr. Ho and his business partner. If you see them at the train station you can trust them.

Maybe. But what a great story if everything went horribly, horrible wrong. The perks of being a travel writer. To my disappointment nothing happened except arriving safely at the zoo, ticket in hand. Mr. Ho and his young business partner are an unlikely pairing. He is tall, has salt and pepper hair and looks like he could be her father. They run the service 3 times a day, once in the afternoon and twice between 5:30 pm and 8:30 pm (one way only), and earn their money from buying tickets in bulk. It only takes 20 minutes and is faster than the public bus service. Give them a try if you are lucky enough to emerge from Ang Mo Kio station and they are parked outside.

The Night Safari is something special. Showcasing nocturnal animals that sleep during normal zoo daytime hours, the dense humid surrounding jungle pulls you right into the safari experience. Take a train or walk the various paths past tigers, rhinos, deer, flying squirrels and hundreds of others.

Without a flash it is hard to take nice pictures on the Safari.


Shopping at Bugis Street

I have grown to appreciate the shopping options in Singapore after living in some meager environments. However, skip the boring sameness of Orchard Street, where all you will find is high end shops carrying the same Louis Vuitton bags you can find back home. For something funkier hit the youth energized Bugis Street. Packed with hip handmade clothing stalls and accessories, this is where you can find bargains and maintain a bit of personal identity and style. Practice your negotiation skills, or just soak in the teaming market atmosphere as stall owners struggle to be noticed and shoppers hunt for the perfect Friday night outfit.

Cooling down with a little fun.

If you need a break from the mayhem, head across the street to Bugis Junction and relax by the fountain. If you’re feeling hot join the kids and frolic in the impeccably timed water dancing about.

Eat…drink and eat some more

Singapore is a gastronomic paradise to suit any budget. In a city that can quickly put pressure on your wallet from accommodation to shopping, food is the one area where you can splurge for cheap. Throughout the city, street stalls have been collected and thrown together into outside eateries offering Chinese, Indian, Singaporean (whatever that means) and general Southeast Asian fare. Or you can head down to the Muslim district and eat Murtabak Prata in one of the many shops.

Haji Lane

Haji Lane

A combined suggestion of shopping and eating, this funky lane in the Muslim district is unique and fun. Crowded with individual clothing boutiques and stylish cafes it offers arguably the most honest atmosphere in a city obsessed with conformity. It also offers beer and alcoholic drinks you can’t find on the other streets nearby.

Building Peeping

I’m no architect but even I can appreciate some of the aesthetics in the city. Put on your walking shoes and explore the city with your eyes glued up and you are sure to find some unique architectural wonders. And don’t forget to peep at night too, or else you could miss out on some amazing light shows.

Parkview Square

So there you have it, my guide to making Singapore an interesting place. You will notice the glaring omission of bars and clubs, of which there are plenty. If you are clubber (or an alcoholic), leave a comment below with your favorite haunts. I won’t be planning my next vacation to Singapore, but if I find myself there again I will at least have a few favorite activities to help take the edge off.

What do you like about Singapore? Prove me wrong and add your comments below.

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