Off the beaten track in Timor Leste

Timor Leste (or East Timor) – heard of it?  No?   It’s not a country on many people’s radar.  Here’s my very basic summary of the countries history that I’ve learnt since arriving.  It was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century, which takes up half of the island Timor, in South East Asia, the other half of the island being West Timor which is part of Indonesia.  When Portugal gave East Timor it’s independence in 1975, Indonesia swooped in two days later, invaded and illegally occupied the country for 27 years.  War, genocide, torture, rape, a third of the population killed.  Fast forward to the Santa Cruz massacre on 12 Nov 1991 and an ITV cameraman was able to film it, bury the footage, come back for it and smuggle it out of the country to finally air what was happening in East Timor to the world in Jan 1992.  It took till 1998 for the Timorese to get to vote for their independence and they won with a huge majority.  As the Indonesian army left everything was destroyed, houses burned, people killed, government records were erased.  The UN took control in 1999.  Then finally in 2002, East Timor became Timor Leste, inducted as a member state of Portugal and finally had it’s independence restored on the 20th May.  There were more outbreaks of violence and the country suffered it’s own civil war in 2006 with over 150,000 people fleeing (at the time that was 15% of the country).  In 2012 the UN peacekeepers left the country, handing the country over to the local authorities and in the tourist world, Timor Leste was open again.

Forgive me for my basic outline, believe me there is SO much more to the 27 year battle for independence but it gives you an idea of the history and the simple fact that this ALL happened during our life times.  I was lucky enough to be visiting Dili (totally unplanned) for the 17th anniversary of the restoration of Independence Day.  Not that much happened.  For a start I was waiting in the wrong place, thinking there was going to be a parade.  One young lad started talking to me wanting to practice his English, and I ended up buying a top up for my SIM card from him so the introduction was mutually beneficial. He introduced me to another lad sat next to him who was a trainee priest and wanted to practice his English too.  They both kindly walked me to the Presidential Palace, where the real celebrations were happening and I managed to get there in time to see some local children compete in a sack race…. yup, a sack race.  Despite the lack of pomp and circumstance I felt that I had come full circle in my Timor Leste history after spending my first few days in the country being immersed in the bloody history of the country.  Actually, it’s not just the first few days you are immersed in it, but the whole trip for me has been an ongoing education.

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Merely weeks after writing To plan or not to plan… little did I know that my next adventure was going to completely contradict it, even as a “researcher”.  Being the newest country of the South East Asian countries tourism is still in it’s infancy.  I came to the country knowing that but didn’t realise just how little tourism there actually is here.  Of course I did do a fair amount of research from the little resources and travel blogs out there and had a fair idea where I would like to go.

I pre-booked two nights accommodation at Casa do Sandalo in Dili – which turned out to be in the compound of the Mexican Consulate.  Things like this become the norm after a while, like having dinner with people who consult to the government and have direct contact with the Ministers and President, people that look after their countries embassy when the ambassador goes away (all I keep thinking about is the Ferraro Roche advert), a man talking loudly on this phone in the empty Resistance Museum stating he was the first westerner on land during the war and rescued someones wife (no idea who, but sounded very important).  You just don’t get that exposure where I’m from!  Anyway…  I had planned to get one of the more expensive daily boats over to Atauro Island and figure out the rest of my trip there, hoping to meet other travellers that had just done the journey or about to embark on it as well (I didn’t meet a single other tourist in eight days on the island, everyone works here).  The day I wanted to leave was a public holiday – Independence Day – no boats running.  Then I found out the daily Compass Charters to Atauro had actually ceased running and Barry, Australian owner of the infamous “Barry’s Place” on the island was trying to arrange another boat to get myself and a lovely Kiwi lady I met on the plane there.  Now I understand why at immigration when asked how long I would be staying and said two weeks, the officer said “no”.  Here was me expecting to be shipped back onto the next flight to Darwin (which to be fair probably isn’t for another week).  She clarified that two weeks wouldn’t be long enough.  Stay for 30.  OK!  So it turns out however much you want to plan, you really can’t.  You’re on Timor time now!!

For my first unplanned four days in Dili I immersed myself in the history of the country.  Took a couple of pre-booked tours on the day of my arrival, then visited the museums, exhibitions, wandered the streets, climbed up to Cristo Rei, visited a Chinese Temple, ate quite a few Pastel de Nata’s (thank you Portugal!), and every night I had dinner with someone I had met that day.  

This is where my time in Timor Leste took hold of me.  The people.  Both local and foreign.  Everyone talks to everyone.  Everyone has knowledge about the country, has lived through the occupation or experienced the aftermath.  Everyone has a story.  I’m greeted daily with wide smiles and “bon dia”, my contact list has expanded like no other country I have visited.  I’m fascinated and heartbroken by all of the stories.  Then there is the dark side.  Over half of the population is under 40, those older being killed during the occupation.  There’s the PTSD.  There’s the violence that can break out in a moments notice.  There’s the sexual assault on women.  Both local women and tourists.

I wanted to travel the length of the country.  All the way out to Jaco Island at the furthest easterly point and all the way to Balibo one of the furthest points to the west, close to the border with West Timor.  I wanted to go into the mountains, explore the war history out in the villages, climb the highest peak, see abandoned forts, guerrilla hideouts, caves, hike mountains that are referred to as “The Lost World”, see crumbling Portuguese colonial buildings, meet locals, visit Uma Lulik (sacred houses) connected with the Fatakulu people.  It’s a country that is full of history waiting to be explored by people like me.  But I haven’t visited any of those.  Why?  Because of the safety aspect.  I am beyond frustrated.  Frustrated that there is no tourism infrastructure to get me to these places safely.  Frustrated being told that if I embark on the local transport to these places I am likely to be molested the whole way.  Frustrated that sexual assault is so prevalent that every person I have spoken with about my plans have advised me, sometimes even begged me to promise not to visit these places alone.  Frustrated that where there are local tour companies offering to take me to these places the costs are exuberant.  Frustrated that other travel blogs do not speak about these issues.  Why?  Because they are unaware?  Because they conquered Timor Leste safely?  Nope, simply because they are men or they work here and have access to a vehicle and will go on weekend breaks with their partner or work colleagues.  Safety in numbers!  I can of course choose to go against everyone’s advice, I can tell myself that it will all be fine, and it might well be.  I might be able to travel the length and breadth of the country as a solo female traveler, feel intrepid and adventurous and not have a single thing happen to me but to be quite honest, the stories I’ve heard, from local and foreign women, why would I put myself in that position.  I have spent time in Dili, and eight glorious nights sleeping in beach shacks on Atauro Island (thanks to Barry for organising that boat!) and now I’m leaving.  I have no regrets.  This country really has gripped me.  So much so that I have been looking for work here and I know in my heart I will be back either to work or travel.  Does anyone want to come with me?  What adventures we would have!

PLEASE do not let that put you off visiting Timor Leste though.  I have felt safe in Dili and travelled around on public transport (the microlets), apply the usual rules – be aware of your surroundings and don’t go out at dark by yourself.  Go to Atauro Island.  It’s safe.  It’s wondrous.  It’s the third most bio diverse place in the world.  Stay in a beach shack at Barry’s Place and learn about permaculture.  Hike over the island hills to Mario’s Place and cut off from the outside world from your own little piece of paradise.

Relish in the fact that whilst it’s frustrating tourism isn’t developed here it is raw and inviting.  It has still been quite the adventure off the beaten track.

Safe travels x

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2 comments

  1. Tsophies · · Reply

    Alright gorgeous! Sophie from Brixton here. What an incredible story. I hope you’re able to visit all the places you want to go to safely as well! xx

  2. It’s unfair that you can’t always feel safe as a female traveler, but it’s a fact of life. Glad you’re practical enough to not put yourself in danger.

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