A MAN I know in London claims to be writing a comic novel about the war in Bosnia. I wouldn't like to say so in public but this man sometimes promises more than he delivers. Nevertheless a challenge is a challenge and I shall try to record, if not the comic, at least some of the bizarre moments of life in Timor as I witnessed it the other day.

Beginning of course with the distinguished Senator for Trinity College, Dublin. I last saw Senator Norris as he was buying postcards at the airport in Bali in Indonesia. He was his usually cheery self, dressed informally and his laughter echoed around the departure lounge. He cut a remarkable figure in the often solemn world of Indonesian air travel. We were both on our way, by different, circuitous routes, to Dili, the capital of Indonesian occupied East Timor.

Neither of us wanting to be "picked up by the ubiquitous Indonesian secret police, we kept our exchanges to a minimum; lest the said police deduce we were acting in consort.

The next day I arrived in Dili from Indonesia after an exhausting overland bus journey, from West Timor and was desolated to learn that the good senator had been prevented from flying to the East Timorese capital. It is my considered opinion, that the laughter was what finally did for him. For a member of the Oireachtas to take up the cause of the Timorese was a bad enough crime in the eyes of General Suharto. To do it laughing must have compounded the crime and prompted Indonesian Goliath to do down the Irish David.

Jumbled geography

Well, it was no good shedding tears over the loss of good laughter, so I started to plan my stay, sitting in my room at the New Resende Inn. My host had thoughtfully provided a wall calendar, provided by a local insurance firm which showed a picture of London's Tower Bridge. It bore the legend "PARIS".

Tired as I was, I couldn't get to sleep for wondering whether it would be a good or a bad thing to pay premiums and expect payouts from a company which couldn't tell the difference between Tower Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. The answer eludes me to this day.

Now the public facility most in use in the New Resende Inn is the karaoke machine. Nightly, officers of the nearby battalion come in and croon half understood English sub titles of the films of dreamy women who look longingly out from the screen at the end of the dining room. My dinners were enlivened by the sight of some falsetto Indonesian major crooning words of love to a girl with long blond hair, while the screen showed some raven haired oriental seductress.

Persistence pays

The high point of my stay was in my going, my forcible expulsion at the hands of the occupation forces. "I'm not going", I said forcefully to Mr Triswoyo, the immigration man, "unless the government of Indonesia pays my ticket". My powers of persuasion were more powerful than I had expected. His upper lip quivered slightly and within an hour the ticket appeared.

Two questions then began to torment me. The first was why I had not demanded a business class seat such as befits a white haired sexagenarian such as I am. The other was why my demands for flight tickets are not heeded with similar dispatch by my editors in this newspaper. I have not resolved those questions either.

Shortly after my enforced arrival at Kupang, the capital of West Timor, I fell into conversation with two young Australian girls, their noses, lips and ears pierced with various metal and bone objects. Pleasant and friendly, they said they were Ferals, a breed of Australian new-agers who are keen on native peoples, tribal life and closeness to nature and whose reverence for animal life imposes on them the strictest vegetarianism.

The pure drop

Only later did their father, John, tell me of their sad experience when they went to a tribal ceremony of the purest authenticity. It involved the villagers decapitating a chicken to observe on which of the surrounding magic stones the headless creature would leave most blood and thus give the assembled company some inkling of what the future held.

The ceremony also involved beating a dog to death. I'm told that Timorese dogs are a particularly hardy breed which take a lot of (presumably unmerited) punishment before they expire. That must have upset the young Ferals as well.

There is a rich vein of irony to be mined in Timor and I'll do it thoroughly one day. Whenever, that is, the Indonesians stop their genocide.