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Monday, 31 August 2015

Travel in Timor Leste or East Timor

Written by Jason Morgado
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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.

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While most of the maps available virtually or physically list street names, there isn’t a single street sign at any crossroads in the city. ‘You do what the locals do’ John explained, use landmarks. In a country where there are four languages to choose from, universal locations such as the Australian Embassy or Palacio do Governo will help you navigate taxi rides around the city of which I have had various levels of success.

From Mediterranean-style houses to the burnt out ruins of churches, the scars of Indonesian occupation and the influence of the Portuguese are evident across the city and the country. The 25 years that Indonesia occupied Timor Leste means that you will find many people speaking Bahasa, the native language of Indonesia, as well as small food stalls scattered across the city selling traditional dishes. I found that while I struggled to communicate, I was a source of humour to the locals serving me dishes of rice and vegetables.

On one of the many sunny days, I rode out to Christo Rei on the east end of the city. The best way to describe the statue is to think of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro on a smaller scale, but with no less of a spectacular view of the ocean. The short fifteen walk up the 200 or so steps to the top provides you with a view along the white sand beach that stretches back along the way that you came.

In the evening this becomes a popular spot in the city to catch sunset or if you desire, join the handful of Timorese who are usually jogging up and down the stairs enjoying the cooler temperatures and a break from the intense sun which becomes very noticeable in this part of the world. In the park at the base of the trail you can also enjoy a picnic in the shade or as I noticed, a few people taking an early evening nap.

The varied expat community intermixes with the vibrant local Timorese which means that beach volleyball and futsal tournaments become the norm on weekends. If you have the chance to experience either, you will find a passionate, sport community that is focused more on having a great time than on winning, but I couldn’t help get behind the antics of the Australian Embassy futsal goalie which made for an entertaining game.

If you are as lucky, the first Saturday of every month is the handicraft market that mysteriously appears at dawn, but really gets exciting mid-morning. The tai, a traditional woven cloth, is one of the more common wares you’ll find at most stalls. You’ll buy one, as I did, once you hear how passionate the women are about their patterns and the time it took to create their piece. 

In my final days I took a water taxi out to Atauro Island which lies north of Dili. This is the contrast that I needed from a city where the motorbike is king. The snorkelling and diving rivals the Great Barrier Reef and the pristine beaches beg for you to at least spend the day lounging on white sand while watching the distant rolling waves. If you are an early riser you’ll be rewarded with a stunning sunrise with an unnatural orange hue across the horizon.

While the tourist infrastructure isn’t as developed, or perhaps more along the line of non-existent, people willing to make the trip will discover a city, a culture and a people who are proud of who they are, how far they have come and the bright future that lies ahead. 

I spent 16 days travelling around the country and it is hard for it not to leave an impression and a need to come back and to watch this country grow up.

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(c)Jason Morgado

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 September 2015