To be honest, I only knew about Timor Leste (East Timor) in 2011 when a girl from there enrolled in the graduate program I was pursuing. It’s been on my travel list since then. Timor Leste is a new sovereign country, gained its freedom in 1999. It was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century up until 1975. Indonesia occupied the country from 1975 until 1999. The UN took over until 2002 when Timor Leste became an independent country.
It wasn’t a peaceful occupation, there was an active conflict between the Indonesian military and the Timor separationists. The official languages in Timor Leste today are Portuguese and Tetum, with Indonesian and English regarded as working languages. So it is not surprising that many Timor Leste citizens grow up speaking 3-4 languages (English, Portuguese, Tetum and Indonesian). The friend I visited speaks all four plus French. Isn’t that awesome! You can read a brief history on Timor Leste on BBC country profile.
Back to my trip, I flew into Dili (the capital) from Darwin, Australia. I didn’t have anything planned for this trip, I was just going to go with the flow. I arrived late in the afternoon, my friend Gabi aka Gabster picked me up from the airport. We later had dinner with two of her friends. We went to a Korean restaurant. Good food and great conversation. One of her friends was opening up a café and invited me to come and chat with her employees so they can practice their English.
Day two in Dili, I went to the Resistance Museum. Very informative and sad at the same time, the museum covers the struggle for independence during the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste. It show a replica of underground hiding cell for the members of the separationist movement who were hunted by the Indonesian military. It tells the story of struggle, minor victories, death, grief and much more. Highly recommended. It reminded me of the Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda.
I asked one of the museum staff to call a taxi for me because my phone was acting up. I tried to give her some money to buy more airtime since I used up some of hers (phones are similar to prepaid phone where you have to top up on data plan and airtime minutes) but she refused to accept, saying she just helped me. By the way, that’s one type of love I received from people in Timor Leste.
I took the taxi to the café that Gabster’s friend was opening up. I pretty much spent the rest of the day there. They were cooking lunch when I arrived, they explained how they made it and had lots of questions for me. Later we role played how they were going to serve customers and taking orders. At the end of the day, my admiration for entrepreneurs was re-ignited.
The following day I took the boat to Atauro – another Island in Timor Leste. The sea was very rough, we all got drained in water and the journey took three hours (instead of 1.5 hour). It was scary but we made it. We arrived at Barry’s Eco Lodge. I was pretty nervous because I didn’t know what to expect from the Eco Lodge. Surprisingly, it was basic but clean and welcoming. Electricity is limited so they rely on solar energy which powers the fan and light in your room. Each room comes with a hammock J.
I loved it so much there that I extended my stay by another day. While in Atauro, I visited Adara aka the Mermaid’s town. Adara is on the other side of Beloi (where I was lodging in Atauro). To get there, you can either take a 45mins speedboat for USD$80 or utilize a car ride and walk 2 hours. We took the second option, three of us, all teachers (from Melbourne, Australia; LA, USA & South Texas, USA). The jeep dropped us off where the road stopped, we then had to walk downhill for 1.5 hours. Not bad, except for a part you had to practically crawl down. After that, it’s a 30 minute walk on the beach.
We got to Adara, beautiful! I chilled in the hammock. We had lunch at Mario’s and headed back to Beloi around 1.15pm. By then, it was super hot. The 30 minute walk on the beach was painful. Equally painful was most of the walk uphill, I hated the part you had to climb the rocks. The last 25 minutes was good, pretty much just walking on a flat surface with a bit of shade. I took a shower then a nap in the hammock when we got back.
Adara is nicknamed The Mermaid’s Town because of the women divers that live there. The local women all dive and spear fish. They dive without oxygen tank, just eye googles. Check out a video on the women divers of Adara here.
Other things I did while in Atauro was visiting Boneca and Empresa Di’ak. Both organizations work with local women and in community development. At Boneca, women make dolls, purses, laptop bag, shirts and so on. With Empresa Di’ak, they sell pottery product made by local women, they also process seaweed, raise ducks and plant garden.
David Palazon made a movie featuring Boneca, pretty funny. You can watch it here. I returned to Dili on Saturday afternoon with the public ferry. Saturday is the market day in Atauro so I got to check that out before leaving.
On Sunday, I went to Cristo Rei (Christ the King), the climb up wasn’t so bad. According to Wikipedia, the stairs are up to 500. I didn’t count them, I was too busy trying to catch my breath. The view is amazing so it’s all worth it. Glad we went in the evening when the sun was setting. During the day would have been too hot. On my last night, I watched the sun set with Gabster –my friend at a beach side restaurant.
Timor Leste is more than Dili and Atauro, there are other amazing part of the country I didn’t get to see. But that’s okay, I will be back. This visit was just a glimpse into this hidden paradise.
5 Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About Timor Leste
- The currency in Timor Leste is the US Dollars however US issued coins are not accepted.
- Most people speak four languages – Tetum, Portuguese, English and Indonesian
- It’s a fairly new country, their founding fathers are alive.
- Tourism infrastructure is so limited which makes traveling in Timor Leste not cheap.
- Citizens of Timor Leste are fanatic of the Portugal Soccer team, they go real crazy over Portugal. Watch the reaction when Portugal won the match with France on July 11th, 2016 here. Their cheers won me up that Monday morning.