I was just a junior in college when I first decided I wanted to go to the tiny nation of East Timor (or its official name, Timor Leste). For some reason I had decided to study Portuguese at the University of Washington and my professor had just spent the summer of 2000 volunteering in East Timor shortly after their referendum for independence. This was a horrific time when bands of Indonesian troops raped and pillaged their way out of the country. Despite these tragic events, the videos we watched of my professor’s interaction with the East Timorese showed a warm and inviting people who were full of hope for a better tomorrow. Upon my visit eight years later, I had high expectations, and the East Timorese did not disappoint.
While East Timor may not be a tourist hot spot in the true sense of the word, I found it to be a truly amazing place for those looking to do something off the beaten track. Since there is no track here, that is certainly not a problem. If you’re inclined to listen to the US or Australian state departments, they will of course advise you not to go. They have to say that. Technically speaking, East Timor is currently enjoying a tense cease-fire from a rather unpleasant civil war. After the Indonesians left, the East Timorese decided to turn on one another, accusing their neighbors with better huts and prettier wives of being Indonesian sympathizers. As a result, the country is scattered with internally displaced persons (or “IDP”) camps. These are essentially refugee camps full of East Timorese who were kicked out of their homes due to violence perpetrated against them by their neighbors. It’s really a tragic story. I was told by some foreigners living there that tensions were beginning to heat up again and there has been talk of rekindling the civil war. Given the troop presence on the ground throughout the country (mostly Pakistanis and Australians), I don’t see how that would be possible. But there you go, that’s my warning, now on to the fun stuff.
My journey started from Darwin, Australia. There are only two ports of entry for traveling to East Timor, Darwin and Bali. Air North, a regional carrier based in Darwin, operates the 80 minute twice daily flight to the capital, Dili. At close to $600 USD for a round trip ticket, the cost alone may scare many people away. Despite these criminally high prices, Air North’s flights are routinely sold out. They certainly take advantage of the monopoly they enjoy on this route and have no problem charging the good folks (most passengers are flying to East Timor to make a difference, not sit on a beach) an obscene amount of money and changing flight schedules on a moment’s notice. I was supposed to be on a 730 a.m. flight. I woke at 5 a.m., rushed myself to the airport only to sit at Darwin International (not much of an airport by the way) for close to 12 hours before my plane (more like a hang glider) finally took off. Oh, but they did buy me a $5 sandwich, so that made it all worth it.
East Timor is poor; in fact, it is the poorest country in the world outside of Africa. Poverty is everywhere and can be a bit overwhelming. Surprisingly, however, East Timor is also a very expensive country to travel to. Do not expect to get much for your money. The constant flow of NGO and military types have propped up an industry of overpriced restaurants (though I have to give a shout out to Kebab Club in Dili – best gyro plate I’ve ever had) and hotels. My “hotel” was $50 per night. One might expect a decent place for $50 in Asia’s poorest country. Well don’t. The room was completely dilapidated and crawling with unwelcome creatures. Malaria is a real danger in East Timor. One would be foolish not to prepare accordingly with a good insect repellant and some antimalarial meds. I would recommend Malarone. Lariam caused me to have some really psychedelic dreams (unless you’re into that sort of thing).
Once you get past the overwhelming poverty of the place, you can just feel the potential of East Timor. The scenery is beautiful and unspoiled (outside of Dili). I strolled along beautiful white sand beaches that looked as though they had not been walked upon for months. Remember, this is island is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Bali. One can only hope that the East Timorese take a better approach to development than the Balinese, but the potential is certainly there.
Dili itself doesn’t have a whole lot to see. There are a few interesting government buildings, a Resistance Museum that is worth taking the 5 minute stroll through (you can see East Timor’s Declaration of Independence there), but you better brush up on your Portuguese before you go. I just enjoyed walking among the people. I would implore you to do your best to buy what you can from the street vendors. The major shop owners are rarely East Timorese and very little of that wealth trickles down to the people. It may cost you an extra quarter for a bottle of water, but you’re likely helping to put food on the table for an extended family of eight.
The adventure truly begins when you step outside the capital. I decided to rent a car in Dili and drive the north coast road to Baucau. Being the economically conscious (some might say cheap) guy that I am, I decided to rent a Toyota Corolla. I drove one throughout my college years and it served me just fine. Well, I grossly overestimated the quality of the roads outside the capital. Nothing less than a Humvee should be driven on these roads. I found this lesson out the hard way as I blew out my second (and last) tire in the middle of the night in front of an IDP camp near the village of Metinaro. I have to admit, I was a bit scared when I was sitting in my car as it became totally engulfed by the camp’s residents. I had visions of my car being sold off for scrap while the villagers robbed me of everything I had. Wrong again. The locals took me in as if I was family. They were all extremely concerned for my well being, bringing me food, blankets. A village elder even came out, who happened to speak Portuguese, and he helped me figure out how to get out of the mess I was in. In hindsight, my car breaking down outside the IDP camp was probably the best thing that could have happened to me on the trip. It’s an experience that I will never forget.
I would recommend East Timor to anyone seeking something different. There really is no tourism to speak of there. I was told they get three tourists a day. This is the first time in my extensive travels where I actually felt that my mere presence was making a difference. Walking around some of the small coastal villages, I was pretty certain they had never seen a tourist before. They first gave me a look of bewilderment, but this quickly changed to a smile. I felt as if my being there caused them to think “see, the tourists are coming, maybe things are looking up.” I may be overstating it, but I certainly felt like my presence brought a certain sigh of relief. As long as you have your wits about you, East Timor is as safe as any other third world country. The only injury I sustained on the trip was a tired arm from waving at all the friendly faces clamoring for my attention. The sun is setting on East Timor’s unspoiled beauty. I strongly recommend you go see this wonderful place before it turns into the next Bali…it’s just a matter of time.