“Wait, you guys are actually tourists? You don’t know anyone in Dili?” the Australian girl next to me gasped in surprise. This wouldn’t be the only time this week that we were asked this question. Dili, the capital of Timor Leste (or East Timor), has a large population of expats; well, only if you compare it to the overall tiny size of the city. Apparently, as this girl told me, most tourists are only here because they happen to know someone working here. It’s rare, she said, to meet someone who just comes here on their own. She had been traveling the country for the last 3 weeks with her boyfriend who lived here a few years back.
But this is what drew me to East Timor. I don’t actually know of anyone who’s come here. So when I was invited to join someone coming here, I kind of had to say yes. It was a country I knew completely nothing about and that I honestly would probably never have another reason to visit, seeing as I didn’t know anybody living here. So why not, I thought, let’s go.
(Very very) Brief History of East Timor
Timor (I’m going to stop saying East or Leste, because it’s just redundant) was occupied by the Portuguese for over 400 years. Then when the Portuguese basically abandoned the colony due to the Portuguese Revolution, in 1974 and East Timor declared independence, which the UN did not recognize. Indonesia almost immediately invaded, since the other half of the island is actually their territory. This started a pretty brutal war that cut down the population of Timor by over 40%. (Side note: as an American I’m always interested on how we fit into these stories, yea, we supplied the Indonesians with guns. Can’t we ever just stay out of it?)
After a horribly bloody raid was caught on tape by foreign journalists in 1991, the rest of the world realized how bad things had gotten in Timor (as if the politicians didn’t know) and finally intervened. A peacekeeping treaty was signed and the UN took over the country in 1999. Finally, Timor was granted recognition as an independent country in 2002, making it the 5th newest nation in the world (6th is Catalonia becomes independent).
Timor in the Present
Now, Timor is still somewhat rebuilding from the Indonesian occupation. All of the expats I met here are working for the UN or UNICEF. The country is still receiving a decent amount of foreign aid. Similar to the time of the baby boomers birth, the country’s birth rate is through the roof, at 7.7 kids per family. Yet unemployment is still really high. When you walked around the streets of Dili, there are a lot of people just sitting around, talking, doing nothing. It’s common for only one person to work in a family and to survive off of a very low income. I was told that $150 a month is a typical income for someone who holds one job.
Cost of Travel
Unfortunately, prices are still quiet high compared to neighboring South East Asian countries. Many people cite the expats for the prices as they are willing to pay the higher prices thus people have begun charging them.
Timor uses US dollar bills and Timorese coins for smaller change. In Dili, a beer will cost you a $1.50, a bed will be around $15 a night, even in a shared room, and a taxi ride to the airport will be more than $5. They will ask for $10, hell, a girl told me someone charged $20 and the tourists didn’t know and ended up paying it. A motorbike rental will cost you over $20 a day. Seriously! Wayy too much. Also, a sim card is about $6 for unlimited data for a week, but it’s really slow and sometimes doesn’t work at all. (These prices are from October 2017)
Even though Timor was under Portuguese control for over 400 years, people in Timor don’t know a lot of Portuguese. They know some basics; they say obrigado (thank you) and bom dia (good morning) but the Indonesians pretty much banned the language during their occupation. Overall, their English is better than their Portuguese.
There’s some influence in the food and cultural sites but for the most part, Indonesia tried to wipe out all signs of the Portuguese.
Yellow taxi’s are pretty much everywhere in Dili and they will honk at you anytime you walk by one. Negotiate, a lot, because they really overcharge you. We were able to get pretty much anywhere within the city for $2 but a ride to or from Cristo Rei will cost you more.
People from all counties expect Portugal and Indonesia can get a 30 day visa on arrival for 30 USD to be paid in cash (bring it with you) if you are entering Timor by plane. Portuguese nationals are exempt from getting a visa (meaning they don’t have to pay).
Normally, I feel pretty safe walking around alone but Dili is really really quiet at night. As a woman, I wouldn’t recommend walking alone at night here, grab a cab instead. There’s really no one out or around. Other than at night, I’d feel ok traveling solo here. All of the women call each other Mana, meaning sister, the woman there will take care of you if you’re on your own.
Timor is a super interesting country to visit. While there’s not much going on since it is so undeveloped, I highly recommend checking it out. This is a place that in 20 or 30 years, you can go back to and say “last time I was here…” because it will be completely different. It’s one of the few places like this left.
If you are planning to stay in Dili I highly recommend staying at Hostel DaTerra which operates more like a homestay. DaTerra made us feel like family and they serve delicious food. The first night we were there we had an amazing Portuguese family dinner with the owners, the girls that work there and some expats. Click here to check rates or for more information.