October 30-November 5, 2001
Timor’s Floating Hotels
Floating hotels are a symbol of high living, an irony in stark contrast to widespread poverty in Timor Loro Sa’e.
My Way, echoing through the spacious Cafe Oceana, brought back the memory of the legendary Frank Sinatra as dozens of neatly-dressed guests of the floating hotel Central Maritime sat back and relaxed on clean, white linen-covered seats that night in August. The sun had just set on the horizon, leaving a stream of red light in the skies above the Gulf of Ombai, off the coast of Dili. Darkness slowly descended on the dimly-lit city largely destroyed in the aftermath of the referendum for independence two years before. The sight contrasted sharply with the brightly-lit hotel berthed close to the beach.
Out in the water, Central Maritime is a dream world awash in lights. A transport ship turned floating hotel, Central Maritime is the most luxurious spot in the whole of Timor Loro Sa’e, the first reference for well-off visitors to Dili. Hundreds of employees of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) earning a monthly salary of US$7,000--equivalent to Rp70 million—stay at the hotel or make it a place of rendezvous.
Security is tight around the clock. Five heavily-set men, hired from Chubb Security, check every visitor at the hotel entrance. You will be allowed in if you can produce an identity card or a guest ticket. A 150-meter floating corridor links the entrance to a reception desk waited on by a beautiful Thai-looking girl.
Central Maritime boasts 133 air-conditioned rooms, each measuring 4 x 3 meters, with a 17-inch Sharp television, a dressing table, a refrigerator filled with beverages, and hot and cold showers to wash away the dirt after you’ve gone around the dusty areas of Timor Loro Sa’e.
The amenities and entertainment at Central Maritime is equal to any hotel of the same class in any big city. Four restaurants and bars serving a variety of international menus cater to the needs of up to a hundred guests at one time. Of course, everything is paid in dollars. An order of steak and fried potatoes costs US$25, a plate of spaghetti, US$20, and a glass of orange juice, US$7. If you have the money, why not try the red wine, which costs only US$50 a bottle. Michael Dorant, a Filipino bartender, proudly told TEMPO that the hotel kept a large stock of 1940-vintage French red wine.
Central Maritime also boasts a swimming pool, a sauna complete with steam bath and shiatsu-style massage—amenities that make the ship a “truly floating palace.” At night, the colorful lights from the floating hotel makes for a beautiful sight to residents of Dili. From onshore, Central Maritime resembles a “massive structure” floating on the water. The lights reflected on the water present a sharp contrast to the darkness in most parts of Dili, just a few hundred meters away from the shore, where hourly brown-outs are the order of the day.
Electricity for Dili, a city of 150,000, is provided by a 20,000-KV generator, courtesy of UNTAET, in comparison with a 15,000 KV generator operated by Central Maritime, which ensures that every room stays constantly bright. This floating heaven also provides girls to cater to the pleasure of the guests. “They aren’t expensive. An all-in night fling with one girl costs only US$200,” muses one hotel attendant.
Central Maritime is an interesting example of the social gap that exist among this newly-formed urban community trying to recover from years of bloodshed and political conflicts.
On a pavement by the pier where Central Maritime is berthed, a piece of Dili’s battered face is reflected in the person of Olu Lobato. A vagrant, Lobato sleeps on a piece of plywood when darkness sets in.
Skinny and unwashed, Lobato told TEMPO he had been separated from his wife and two children since August 1999, when post-referendum violence disrupted families. Lobato said his house in Bobonaro was destroyed by fire, leaving him virtually penniless. “This pavement is now my home,” he said in Tetum, the language of the Timorese.
Lobato is one of thousands of Timorese who have suffered such misfortune. Without shelter, money and jobs, they face a bleak future. Archbishop Filipe Ximenes Belo, a 1995 Nobel Peace laureate became agitated asked about the latest situation in Dili. “The leaders are only concerned with getting positions in the government, forgetting the poor and the gap that exists in society today,” he told TEMPO.
Belo was not exaggerating. From the windows of his palace which is only a stone’s throw away from the beach, the Archbishop could see a display of extravagance—yet another floating hotel. The Amos, like Central Maritime, is another ship turned hotel. Outwardly looking more like neatly-arranged containers, Amos offers facilities common in a hotel, including television, air-conditioned rooms, and hot an cold showers. Amos, which charges a room rate of US$90 a night, offers a discount of up to US$15 during quiet times.
Amos and Central Maritime are not the first floating hotels operating in Timor Loro Sa’e. In late 1999 when the first groups of UNAET personnel arrived in what used to be Indonesia’s 27th province, Hotel Olympia was the only place to stay for most of the expatriates. With no competition, Olympia charged an exorbitant US$200 for a 3 x 2 meter room a night. The floating hotel, owned by an Australian, had been in operation prior to the rioting in the wake of the 1999 referendum and escaped the fire which destroyed most government buildings and hotels in the city.
In its one year of operation under contract with UNTAET, Olympia is believed to have made at least US$40 million in profits—eight times the amount UNTAET spent in salaries to its local employees during the same period.
Central Maritime and Amos which arrived in Dili with the departure of Olympia, saw small-budget hotels proliferate all over the city. Most of these non-star hotels were built by Singaporean businessmen charging a room rate of US$50 a night—a low rate by expatriates’ standard, but still inaccessible to the locals. A Timorese polisia with a monthly salary of US$100 would go bankrupt if he stayed for just two nights in such a small hotel. “Sleeping in a hotel is a dream. My salary is just enough to pay for food,” says Alfredo Tilman, a polisia and former member of the Indonesian police in Dili.
Having won independence, the Timorese are awakening to a new reality. The sight of Lobato sleeping on the pavement of a pot-holed road and old rickety buildings lining the beach stands in stark contrast to the Central Maritime display of good living—a reminder to the Timorese that they still have to face another enemy in their midst—poverty.
The song My Way ended, to the applause
of guests. A beautiful waitress came around, offering an a la carte menu,
a serving of which costs more than the monthly salary of polisia Alfredo
Setiyardi (Timor Loro Sa’e)
BD: Financing Reconstruction in East Timor / Fundu Ba Rekonstrusaun Timor Loro Sa’e / Bantu uang: Rékonstruksi - A collection of recent reports and articles