If you are Portuguese, chances are you’ve heard of Timor Leste, you might not know where it is, but you’ve heard of it. As a Canadian, you may have heard of East Timor, its unofficial name, but the more that I told people where I was going on holiday, I got more quizzical looks than approving nods.
When I think back on it, I am not sure how I settled on Timor Leste for my annual holidays, but somewhere within the past six months I set my dates, bought my tickets and went to visit the travel clinic for a dizzying array of shots and medications.
Flying to Dili, the capital, isn’t easy. It can only be reached via Singapore, Bali in Indonesia and Darwin on the northern tip of Australia. This type of isolation and challenge already had me excited because any country that is this hard to get to has to be good.
The main road from the airport lends itself to the modern amenities of a four star hotel on one side and a 24-hour fruit stand with local, organic produce on the other. When I say 24-hour, I mean that at 3 am should you have the need for a bunch of bananas or a papaya, you can gently wake the stall owner to pay for it.
As a modern-day tourist, visiting Timor Leste challenges you to think a little differently. The information available online is scant and appears to have been copied and pasted from one travel site to the next, more often than not contradicting each other.
This however, is where I started my pre-journey, online. I reached out to John through an Australian-Timor Leste Friendship Group page where he was the on the ground Timor Leste representative. The purpose of the group is to help share resources and knowledge between countries and has been instrumental in helping more remote communities by providing services such as English language teachers. After exchanging a handful of emails, John promised to buy me coffee when I arrived and he would fill me in on what to expect.
I met John for coffee at Hotel Timor, a popular expat hangout, on my second day wandering the city and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into. Understanding Dili takes time and I learned more in ten minutes then I could have ever learned online.
John was on one of the last boats to leave Dili during the Indonesian invasion of 1975 shortly after Timor Leste declared independence during the Portuguese Carnation revolution in 1974. He came back when a United Nations sponsored referendum in 1999 once again provided the Timorese with a voice on independence.