First Impressions of Timor-Leste (East Timor)

A few months ago, I went on a spontaneous (and hectic) trip to Timor-Leste with a couple of my friends. Truth be told, I probably couldn’t point it out on a blank map and knew nothing of its complex history before my visit. It ended up being one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to, and I can’t wait to share all the mayhem — both good and bad — that took place.

A brief history of Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste is one of the newest countries in Southeast Asia.

Timor-Leste has had a dark and deep history of occupation. First, the Portuguese came and occupied the country from the 16th century until 1975, when Timor-Leste declared independence. Of course, because humans are greedy, the Indonesian government invaded just nine days later.

The Indonesian government was extremely brutal with the people of Timor-Leste and enforced a strict regime with a strong military presence.

Much of today’s infrastructure was created by the Indonesian government, who built roads and schools during their time of occupation. Then, the Indonesians caused widespread hunger throughout Timor-Leste and killed nearly 20,000 Timorese people.

A rebellion striving for independence was led by a resistance party called Fretalin, and eventually, in 1999, the U.N. moderated a vote where the Timorese could vote to either stay occupied by the Indonesian government, or create a new state. 78.5% of Timorese opted to create a new country and Timor-Leste was born.

But the Indonesians did not leave peacefully. They employed a scorch-and-burn campaign on their way out, destroying Timorese land, killing over 1,000 people, and creating over 300,000 refugees who fled to West Timor.

To date, the country has still not fully recovered. Though there have been solidarity movements and aid workers are constantly stationed in Timor-Leste, tourists have kept their distance.

Of course, the history is more complicated than what I can talk about in a blog post. Today, the Timorese have yet to develop a completely independent government. Many welfare programs are led by foreign aid organizations and there is tension with Australia, because the Australian government exploits Timorese oil.

First impressions of Timor-Leste

A few days leading up to my trip, I worried about contracting malaria or contracting some other nasty mosquito-borne disease in a land with such limited healthcare. Armed with a full-length mosquito-repellent outfit and the strongest DEET that I could find, I hopped onto a flight from Bali to Dili with two of my best friends.

Our plane landed at the only major airport in the country, named after one of Timor-Leste’s strongest resistance leaders. We filed into line and my ears perked up once I heard an American accent.

“What brings you here?” A man from Nebraska asked. He stood next to a fellow cornhusker.

“Ah, we have a friend living in Dili.” I answered, “And you?”

“We’re missionaries.”

“For who?”

“Jesus.” The shorter man responded, “I woke up one day and had a calling – Jesus was telling me to go to East Timor.”

“Well, Jesus told you to come to a pretty random place!” I laughed as I pictured Jesus sitting on the edge of the bed being like, “Yo… Steve. My man. You gotta pack your bags. My homies need you over in this tiny country that you’ve might’ve never heard of.”

Thanks to the Portuguese influence, East Timor is predominantly Catholic. Then, once the civil war ended, aid workers, U.N. peacekeepers, and religious missionaries from all around the globe poured in. I wondered if the men were here strictly for soul saving or also for charity work, but didn’t probe.

A gruff customs worker asked me why I was visiting. “Tourism.” I answered. He lifted an eyebrow and said, “Tourism?” I nodded and he waved me through to a yellowed waiting room. Taxi drivers beeped out front.

The friend who lived in Timor-Leste full time, ran up to us and called us over to the taxi he’d retrieved. The taxi driver had a mean mug and chucked our bags into the trunk. When it wouldn’t close, he gave an, “ah… screw it…” shrug and hopped into the driver’s seat. (Must every taxi driver in the world fulfill the ratbag stereotype?) Tens of tiny mirrors filled the front of the car.

We weaved through dusty and dilapidated buildings, past old cars, and airbrush painted buses with rasta colored motifs until we arrived at our compound. Groups of Timorese men hung around on the side of the road and in front of shops. Thatched-roof huts stood between concrete structures. At the compound, “Merry Christmas 2017” written in spray paint welcomed us at the entrance.

Inside the gate, sounds from the neighborhood – squeals, barks, bleats, and cat howls painted the air.

Expats in Dili say that the Timorese took their villages and brought them to the city.

There were a few others in the group yet to arrive, forming a group of six total. I was new to the group, and felt slightly nervous about how the trip would pan out. Would I feel like an outsider, being the only American in a group of Dutchies? How would I cope with being along for the ride on a trip led by others?

Fortunately, everyone was very friendly — but there was an awkward moment when I preemptively refused to drive a motorcycle on one of the trips we had planned. First, I’m not great at driving one anyways. Second, my insurance wouldn’t cover me if anything happened. A few in the group pressed the issue. I’m sure that if you’d named most likely ways to die in Timor-Leste, motorcycling with shoddy skills over potholed, chaotic roads would top of the list. So, I stood firmly in the hell-to-the-no camp.

If you don’t advocate for yourself, who will?

I hated feeling like the trip was off to an uncomfortable start, but the Timorese dust settled and alternative motorcycle logistics were worked out.

We drove (er, well, another drove with me riding pillion) to a nearby restaurant and dined on noodle soup by the sea. Because of all the foreign aid that comes in, prices in Timor-Leste are astronomical compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. The currency is the U.S. dollar. Coming from Bali, my $15 meal was a stab to the wallet.

After a long day of traveling, all six of us piled into one bedroom where we slept on air mattresses and yoga mats for the night. Around 2 a.m., the power went out and with it, so went the air conditioning. The Timorese heat combined with the temperature of six bodies turned the bedroom into a hot box with more sweat and humidity than a frat-house dance floor.

I turned over all night, waiting for morning when we’d pack up our things and take a boat over to an island surrounded by coral reef. Timor-Leste was already starting to feel like a grand adventure.

Did you know that East Timor is one of the world's newest and least traveled to countries? Find out what my first impressions of East Timor were. Did you know that East Timor is one of the world's newest and least traveled to countries? Find out what my first impressions of East Timor were.

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21 Responses

  1. stephanie says:

    Im curious about part 2 of this story. I had never heard anyone talk about this country..

  2. Honey says:

    I just had to comment on Jesus being in the corner of the bed, LOL. Sounds like an interesting albeit scary situation to be in. I suppose it’s part of the adventure but of course safety is key when traveling. Looking forward to what happens!

  3. I’ve never heard of Timor Leste before reading this post. That certainly is a tragic history! I always forget that the Portuguese had colonies in Asia. Good for you for visiting a country that is off the beaten path.
    Stella the Travelerette recently posted…How to Have a Perfect Day in Madrid, SpainMy Profile

  4. Quite an adventure. Waiting to read part 2 of the story. $15 is quite expensive for a meal for South East Asia. Was the food good?

  5. Indrani says:

    Never knew of this place and the first experience I get to read isn’t so rosy. The history is painful.
    Imagining how it is to stuffed in to a room like that. 😛 🙂
    Indrani recently posted…Wordless Wednesday – 419 #CaptionThisMy Profile

  6. I read so many travel blogs and I’ve never seen a post on Timor Leste, so well done on that! Beyond that, it’s a great post, so thanks!

  7. Miriam Ernst says:

    Good that you write about history, always interesting and important. A very tragic story though.

  8. Well i Have to say that I have never heard about this cute little country. I guess Jesus forgot to stop by my house that day and tell me to go. I am glad you told me so now I have to investigate because it looks really fun and colorful. Thanks for sharing I am waiting to read more.

  9. Bhusha says:

    I have to agree with you. Before reading your post, neither did I know of the place or point it on the map!
    The country was born in 2004? Whoa! Indeed a new born baby!!!

  10. I love that you gave such a great rundown of Timor Leste’s history at the beginning. It’s so interesting, and I know that a lot of travelers to Indonesia have zero idea about it. My friend used to live in Dili and was an aid worker. I always wanted to visit him, but it never worked out. I can’t wait to read more about your time there. I have a feeling I will make my way there someday 🙂 Perhaps if I’m in Bali this summer!

  11. Sam says:

    This is so detailed! What a wonderful discussion of Timor Leste! I didnt have so much knowledge about it and I am glad I came across this post!

  12. Anne says:

    Cripes I remember these tragedies unfolding. Great to see you exploring here. Would love to visit
    Anne recently posted…Fancy Skiing In Zermatt This Christmas For Less Than £1,000?My Profile

  13. Ali May says:

    Wow, I am so intrigued about what happens next. It’s tough arriving in a new country and trying to understand your surroundings and the people, let alone in a tricky country in turmoil like this one! Good for you for holding your ground on the motorcycle pressures.

  14. Ami says:

    Does seem like an adventure. The place seems to have gone through a fair bit of struggle and to understand that itself makes it interesting to visit. Waiting to see more. cheers
    Ami recently posted…Life along the Backwaters of KeralaMy Profile

  15. A great adventure – I wouldn’t be on the bike either though, my brother has just got 6 broken ribs coming off his! Is Timor Leste completely lacking tourist stuff?
    Fiona Maclean recently posted…Tunisa – Part 2My Profile

  16. Danik says:

    I never seen photos of East Timor, it looks like an amazing place. Great readup, sounds like you are having an amazing adventure. Love to get out there and explore the rugged coastline.
    Danik recently posted…The Curious Explorers guide to Paris: Eiffel Tower QuarterMy Profile

  17. Rachael says:

    Interesting to read your experience, although I have to admit that I have never heard of Timor-Leste. I am interested to hear the rest of your story!
    Rachael recently posted…Best Bites of San Francisco: Fog Harbor Fish HouseMy Profile

  18. Heather says:

    Very interesting read. I’m embarrassed to say that I was unfamiliar with Timor-Leste and it’s turbulent history prior to reading this post. Sounds like you’re off for quite the adventure. Looking forward to reading what’s next and how the rest of your trip goes with your new travel companions and details about the island surrounded by coral. Hopefully you’ll get to do some snorkeling or diving.

  19. Kerri says:

    Incredible and out of the normal range of travel destinations! I know a little about East Timor because of the Australian troops who were sent here many years ago. You’ve captured some authentic moments here, a great adventure I’m sure.

  20. Jenna says:

    I’ve always been curious about Timor-Leste but have never known anything about it. Thanks for the introduction–it definitely sounds like a fascinating place! I would have been hesitant to drive a motorcycle there too–good for you for standing your ground. Sounds like a great and very interesting trip!
    Jenna recently posted…Camping & Hot Springs in Banff National ParkMy Profile

  1. July 26, 2017

    […] not exactly a pharmacy on every corner in East Timor, a country that’s just come out of a devastating civil war. The East Timorese version of a pharmacy is a small stand on the side of someone’s home with […]

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