As time goes on, it takes more and more for me to get excited about a destination. Yes, after 18 years of constant travel, I have seen a great deal. And just like anything we do over and over again, travel has just become the norm.
So, to combat this, I need to head beyond every now and then, I need to cross borders that for one reason or another, feel a little different.
Recently, it was the case when I decided to travel to East Timor (Timor-Leste).
Travel to East Timor: The Good
A lot of people have never heard of this country, but…
East Timor sure is a beautiful place. Mountains, beaches, coffee plantations, lush tropical forests…check, check, check and check.
East Timor also has some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered anywhere on this planet. Almost everyone we walked by or came across gave us a wide smile or an enthusiastic thumbs up or quick “hello” or “bon dia” or a handshake. There are many ‘friendly’ countries out there but this was WAY over the top.
The capital city, Dili, offers grand sunsets from the waterfront, a laid-back vibe and an immediate glimpse into Timorese life. It’s not the prettiest of towns but it was real and raw. There are no ultra-fancy shopping malls or built up waterfronts designed just for tourists, that’s for sure.
When we hailed taxis, not a single taxi driver tried to overcharge us. I don’t think I’ve been to any city where taxis don’t use meters yet they still offer foreigners the normal rate. Of course, the drivers almost never knew the street names, even the main avenues, but we always figured it out with some fun back and forth chatting.
The drivers also didn’t seem to know that being able to see out the windshield of their vehicle should be a priority…
During our stay, we also ventured out of Dili. We took a trip, with a local guide, to the town of Gleno, set in the mountains. We drove down the coast to the tiny communities of Liquica and Maubara. We also visited museums, the famous Cristo Rei statue, beaches, markets and a variety of places to eat. And of course, we tried to interact with people wherever we went.
And to top it off, we didn’t see any other tourists during our stay.
Yes, when you travel to East Timor, it can indeed be fascinating.
Travel to East Timor: The Reality
This is where tourism gets confusing.
Sure, I could say ‘travel to East Timor, it’s great, everyone should visit!’. But I wouldn’t mean that in the usual way.
Despite the fact that we did have a good time, that we did meet some wonderfully friendly people, the truth is that going to this country without an interest in digging deeper, without an interest in venturing beyond the beaches, mountains and sunsets, would be a real injustice to the people that call East Timor home.
As travelers, we tend to avoid this deeper digging. We tend to be quite satisfied labeling destinations based only on our limited experiences and what our eyes, or camera lenses, see. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that it is our pure lack of interest that prevents us from learning what life is really like in a place. We just don’t care enough to learn about the reality behind the sights and food and cafes and cool activities.
Usually, we just want to have a good time and leave it at that.
When it comes to East Timor though, I found that it wasn’t possible to just leave it at that.
Alongside those sunsets and lush mountains were towns and villages full of people without any work. Over 40% of the Timorese population survives (or tries to) on less than $1 USD per day.
Everywhere we went around Dili and its surroundings we saw and learned about massive, yet failed, projects – failed resorts, failed harbors, failed attractions, failed development schemes – that are now sitting ‘temporarily’ abandoned, billions upon billions of dollars possibly having been wasted.
All the while, in comparison, the rural communities supposedly receive little attention or assistance, there are slums around Dili without any electricity or sanitation and things such as healthcare and education don’t seem to be high up on the agenda. Locals we spoke with pointed out that the population is being neglected while the government pins its hopes, and the economy, on large-scale, quick-fix solutions that rarely seem to work out.
The infrastructure is poor at best, trash is piling up, too. Believe me, that stunning white sand beach in the photo at the top of this post has its fair share of plastic bottles scattered all over it.
Markets were full of stalls yet barely any shoppers. Everywhere you went people were just hanging around with nothing else to do. This is East Timor, too.
Travel to East Timor: The Challenges
With a history that involves Portuguese rule starting in 1702, Indonesian occupation from 1975 – 1999, brutal massacres and starvation thrown in, as well as literally being far removed from the rest of the world, it’s understandable that this relatively new country is struggling to get on its feet. It’s only been fully independent since 2002.
Spending an hour in the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum (their website is quite barebones) is enough to leave anyone overwhelmed with grief at what the people of this country have had to endure. It’s not pretty.
Also, the population of just over 1 million people speak a couple of dozen different languages. I imagine it’s quite difficult to create a strong sense of unity or a real identity to build upon when everyone isn’t on the same page in terms of general communication.
Imagine walking through your capital city. One sign is in Portuguese, the next in Tetum, the next in English and then there’s one in Bahasa Indonesia. Now imagine that you can only speak one, maybe two of those languages, at best. I only met one person, who had the good fortune to be educated in Portugal, that spoke all of the main languages above. There are 14 languages with at least 10,000 speakers and while Portuguese is one of two national languages (the other is Tetum), it’s the first language of only 600 people.
That’s a challenge.
It was tough to see so many people struggling in this current situation. A great deal of work needs to be done for it all to improve, however, most Timorese I met were not too hopeful.
Anyway, this is not a political post. I wanted to travel to East Timor, I went and this post is the first result.
Travel to East Timor: The AMAZING
So, I’ll now say this.
What really is fascinating in this country is not the beaches or mountains or colorful fish swimming around the reefs. It’s the fact that despite all of the above, somehow, almost everyone we met showered us with those beaming Timorese smiles and enthusiastic thumbs up that I will never forget.
I can barely crack a smile when I feel a little tired or I need to spend an hour sending emails. Quite pathetic when I think about it, I know.
The word ‘amazing’ is quite overused these days but I really don’t hesitate for a moment to use it in order to describe the kindness and warmth we experienced as we wandered around.
I’ll end the post with this. Go and travel to East Timor. Really.
Enjoy the beaches and mountains and snorkeling and markets and all that. Buy the handmade crafts. They are colorful and impressive and they cost so little. The people need it. They need the money, the jobs, the infrastructure and perhaps even more importantly, they need the awareness of their story.
The only way to help with that last part is to remember that, wherever you venture in this country, the people all around you have gone through quite an ordeal and are struggling more than you could possibly imagine.
So be sure to smile back, give a thumbs up, too, introduce yourself and get to know as many people as you can. They are wildly friendly and they would love to interact with you, in whatever combination of languages you can.
Believe me, it’s these interactions, and what you will learn from them, that will turn your trip to East Timor into a trip like no other. Digging deeper is the key and it should be on every traveler’s itinerary.
Have you ever thought about traveling to East Timor? Any questions?
(More details on how to travel to East Timor, getting around, where to stay and more in my next post.)