Three weeks in Timor Leste
Wednesday 2 July 2014 - Wednesday 23 July 2014
Arriving at Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport without the seventy US dollars in cash required to purchase our visas was a little short-sighted of us. But instead of being ushered out of the queue and into an interview room, we walked straight past the border guards, security checks and passport control to the airport exit where we could use an ATM just so long as we promised that we’d ‘come back to get our stamps’ when finished.
Traveling in East Timor was clearly going to be informal, friendly and unlike any other country we’d previously experienced.
Dili is not an easy place to like. It is small, crowded and dusty and, thanks largely to the influx of NGOs with staff paid on western wages, hugely over-priced. You’d be hard pushed to find a hotel room for less than $50-100 a night, dinner might set you back $10-15 each and a beer can be as much as $5. But you certainly don’t come here to experience the food and nor is there a ‘destination’ hotel to draw you. Instead it’s the unspoilt beaches, the superb reefs and the friendly, relaxed people which encourage you to stay.
As South East Asia’s newest nation, Timor Leste is not yet firmly on the tourist trail for very many backpackers. It’s troubled past and in particular the bloody independence struggle from Indonesia has left its mark on both the country’s infrastructure and population, not least in the languages spoken here. Most people we met are at least bilingual, speaking a local language (most commonly Tetun) but, dependent upon their age, at least one other from Bahasa Indonesian, Portuguese or English – a constant reminder of the foreign influences both historical and present. It’s also this same history that has kept most tourists at bay leaving the white sandy beaches undeveloped and unused save for a few guesthouses, homestays and the occasional hotel dotted around the country.
Almost the instant you leave Dili the pace changes – the air clears, the traffic disappears and replaced with rural scenes of small fishing villages replete with livestock wandering freely along the road. Within a few kilometres and a 15 minute drive of downtown Dili are the quiet sands of Ariea Branca and the amusingly named Jesus backside beach, the latter of which you are almost guaranteed to have to yourself. A drive eastwards further along the spectacular northern coastal road reveals a seemingly endless string of beautiful beaches, coves and spits, each fringed by an extension of the same coral reef and all perfectly deserted.
We had been warned by Dan, the British owner of East Timor Backpackers (Dili’s only real budget accommodation option) that ‘you need either a lot of time or a lot of money to travel in Timor Leste.’ Fortunately we had the former. It took us a week and a lot of patience to travel the 300 or so kilometres to the far eastern end of the country to visit Timor Leste’s only national park and the beautiful, uninhabited Jaco Island.
Sealed roads and, consequently, transport options are fairly limited outside of Dili. We used public buses and mini-vans called mikrolets when we could, each crammed to the gills with the usual array of goods, livestock and people. The chain-smoking men and women, mouths often stained red from chewing (and spitting) beetle nuts, were always very chatty and inquisitive about us. We gleaned some very useful local knowledge each time. In addition, we also relied upon blagging rides on delivery lorries which stopped every few kilometres where they acted as mobile shops and the occasional lift in the back of a pick-up from sympathetic tourists or NGOs. Pre-dawn departure times were the norm and just once, our only option was an 8km, two and a half hour uphill hike starting at 5am.
At each stop along the way we were rewarded with something special. There was the spring-fed lido built into the side of the hill and excellent Portuguese steaks at the Pousada de Baucau. In Com, the sunsets were only beaten by the beauty of the sunrise over a distant Indonesian island of Wetar. Whilst around Lospalos and Tatuala the traditional stilted houses of the Fataluku stood proudly over the more modern buildings adorned with revolutionary graffiti. And of course, there was always a beach, guaranteed to have pretty good snorkelling.
It is in and around Lospalos that the scars of the Indonesian ‘occupation’ are most palpable. Here, the resistance forces remained active the longest and it was here that Indonesian retribution after the vote for independence in 1999, was at its most harsh. The crumbling shells of buildings, burned by the Indonesian troops as they withdrew, are still visible on nearly every street. A final atrocity towards a country that had been ravaged by a famine and had seen the population fall by around 20%.
In one village, after being dumped unceremoniously from our delivery truck only a few kilometres further down the road from where we’d been picked up, we were shown the graves of 14 ‘heroi de patria’. Adorned with national flags, plastic flower arrangements and several bovine skulls, these were war heroes and revered as such. Despite communicating in different languages, it was clear that three of the graves belonged to relatives of the man waiting with us and all, he claimed, had been shot by the Indonesians.
It’s not surprising then that as we shared a cramped mikrolet on the bumpy two hour ride back into Lospalos that one woman proudly explained that they spoke 42 different ethnic languages in Timor Leste but that ‘around here, no-one speaks Indonesian’.
Posted by stuartfinch
Archived in East Timor
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