East Timor was never part of my original itinerary, but after my failure to get a 60-day visa in Melbourne (annoyingly I’ve since discovered it’s quite easy to get one in Perth amongst other places) it suddenly seemed like the obvious way to extend my stay in Indonesia after my thirty day visa expired.
It wasn’t just the chance to get a new visa that attracted me to the country though – East Timor is one of the world’s newest countries, finally gaining independence after 25 years of struggle against Indonesian occupation, and three years of UN-stewardship, in 2002. It hasn’t all been plain sailing ever since (in fact it’s only been moved off the list of countries that the UK advises against all but essential travel very recently) and that, combined with its rather out-of-the-way location means that very few tourists make it to the country each year, which just added to the appeal for me.
You don’t have to look very far to see signs of the country’s recent history – on arriving in the capital city, Dili, after a long bus journey from Kupang in Indonesian West Timor, the first thing that strikes you is the huge number of white UN vehicles everywhere. The country may be independent, but the process of building a new country from scratch (as well as repairing all the infrastructure that was destroyed by the departing Indonesian army in 1999) means that the UN and many other international agencies are still present in the country, from army units from Australia & New Zealand, to UN police from all over the world, and countless NGOs working in various fields. All this means that despite the country having only a tiny amount of tourists (apparently less than 1500 a year) there are still foreigners everywhere.
The scars of the occupation are still readily visible – despite all the reconstruction that’s been done, there are still quite a few burnt out buildings dotted around the capital. If you want to delve deeper into the country’s recent history, there are several museums and exhibitions devoted to it. Best of all is the Chega! Exhibition, which was set up to highlight the work of the truth and reconciliation commission that was set up after independence, and is a fascinating look at the country’s recent history. One section highlights the role the rather shameful role that other countries played throughout the occupation – from the US’s greenlighting of the original invasion, to Australia being the only major country to formally recognise it (for which they were thanked by getting their maritime boundary shifted to get more than their fair share of the Timorese oil fields, something that the Australian government outrageously has failed to back down on) and my own country for having supplied most of the weapons that were used by Indonesia against the Timorese during the occupation.
Re-reading that all makes the place seem a little depressing – but it’s not at all. I had a lot of fun in Dili, despite the best efforts of the weather. I had the misfortune to arrive in the country in the very first week of the rainy season – and it was pretty torrential. That meant my plans to dive were scuppered – the country has some of the cleanest water and best reefs in the region, but the beginning of the rains meant all the silt washed off the mountain and straight into the water, reducing visibility significantly. Any plans to climb Mt Ramelau, highest in the country, were also scuppered. But the rain did clear enough to let me spend a bit of time at the lovely beaches just outside the city.
You also get to meet some pretty interesting characters in Dili, a far cry from the usual mix of backpackers I’ve been hanging around with for the first nine months. On my first day on the beach, I met a Jordanian UN policeman and the Portuguese UN Chief of Police, who told me a lot about the difficulties of policing the country. Back at the hostel I met an Australian UN policeman who’d done various stints in the country over the years, and who was able to tell me a lot about all the complications and politics of getting police from dozens of different countries working together in the UN. Via an Australian I met I was invited to a party for the British expats on the island, so one evening I found myself sipping Pimms on a roof terrace with a collection of people working for various NGOs, the hospital, different UN agencies, and even the former British ambassador. Not the kind of party I’ve been used to attending – but it was a great change to experience the rather unusual expat lifestyle. Back in the hostel I also got to meet a Timorese veteran of the resistance movement, who talked a bit about his experience of fighting against and hiding from the Indonesian army during the 25 year occupation.
As I mentioned, I didn’t get to travel around the country anywhere near as much as I would have liked, thanks to the weather and the time it took me to sort out my Indonesian visa (and plan my exit from the country – trying to leave in the run-up to Christmas turned out to be surprisingly difficult thanks to all the expats leaving for a Christmas break). But I did make it a few hours along the coast to Baucau, Timor Leste’s second city.
The old town of Baucau has a gorgeous location, sitting on a lush green palm-covered hillside overlooking the sea, and separated from the new town behind by a huge, dramatic cliff. The city has a few better colonial buildings still standing than I noticed in Dili, best of which is the old municipal market right in the centre of town, although that too is semi-ruined. Just below it is a huge fountain that serves as playground and communal baths for all the local kids, who insisted I took lots of photos of them as they jumped in and out of the water.
Sadly my plans to spend a couple of days on Baucau’s perfect beaches were scuppered by the rains – which is a shame, as they looked utterly perfect. Likewise my plans to make it further east towards Jaco island, which people speak of in awe-struck tones. Looks like I’ll have to return in the future – and next time when it’s not in the rainy season.
You can see all of my photos of East Timor here