Dili: A Dreadful First Impression

Timor-Leste. Also known as East Timor. Also known as Timor. Also known as the tiny country attached to Indonesia that people often seem to have no idea even exists.

For such a tiny part of the world, it is one that has been fought over for decades, and the wounds of previous invasions are still fresh. East Timor was first colonised by Portuguese settlers in the 16th century and was known as Portuguese Timor until the mid 1970’s. It was at this time that the Timorese people first gained independence thanks to the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN).

However, 9 days after the independence of the territory was announced, Indonesia invaded. For two decades the small territory was war torn and known for the violent conflicts ensuing between FRETILIN and the Indonesian military. Indonesia occupied East Timor until late 1999, when the United Nations supported an act of self determination. Timor-Leste officially became an independent country in 2002.

Gaining independence has been just the beginning for one of Asia’s youngest countries and the country has a lot of steps yet to be taken to ensure that it survives as an independent sovereign state. Timor-Leste is one of the most oil dependent nations on Earth and also consistently ranks as one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia. Poor health outcomes run rampant and sustainable local businesses are few and far between.

I visited Timor-Leste in January this year and while I had some amazing experiences, I also had some not so nice ones.


This post contains descriptions of physical assault. Please do not read on if this is a trigger for you.

This blog is about solo travel and all that comes with it. The world is an amazing place and I firmly believe that travelling is the best way to fully understand that. However, in life, things go wrong and bad things happen regardless of whether you are at home or on the road and regardless of whether you are alone or surrounded by people.


Life cannot exist without risk and I want to stress that travelling solo does not increase the risk that something bad may happen to you, it just changes the potential settings for such things to occur.

If you are looking for a Timorese adventure, there are only a few entry points into the capital of Dili. There are regular flights from Bali and as it happens, regular flights from my home base in Darwin with the airline Air North.

When I flew into Dili from Darwin, there was only one other passenger on the flight! This was my first hint that I was heading to significantly less visited land than I am used to. Even my flights in and out of Greenland were more full than this.


Dili Airport is pretty small and very basic. After landing I payed for my tourist visa and was swiftly waved passed the ‘customs desk’. When I use the term ‘customs desk’, it is a bit of an exaggeration. A foldaway desk with a piece of paper with ‘customs’ scribbled on it is easily the most informal customs I have ever been through!


There were numerous taxi drivers standing outside the airport waiting for jobs. I flagged one down and negotiated a price to take me to my hostel ($10 USD is considered the standard cost) and was off. What happened next is where Dili left a pretty horrid first impression.

What should have been a 20 minute drive along the coast was anything but. After using the traffic as a reason to divert the taxi despite my protests and my pleading with the taxi driver to go in the direction I was pointing (thanks to Google I knew exactly which way we needed to go), this driver proceeded to take us up into the mountains, far away from where I needed to be.

My gut was telling me that I needed to get out of the car, but he had taken us into an extremely dodgy part of Dili and it would have taken me hours to walk back into the more populated parts of the city. Not only that, but the only people on the streets in these areas were men. Men who were staring and men who could easily overpower me. They may have been harmless, but if I were to take that risk and find out otherwise, there would have been nowhere to go and nobody around to help me. In the end, I thought one dodgy taxi driver would be easier to take on than twenty or so full grown men.

So I stuck it out. Stressed and sweaty and aggravated that this man was obviously doing this to try and rip me off, I knew I would eventually get where I needed to go, but that he was going to try and overcharge me when I did.

So what should have been a 20 minute drive took three fricking hours. I was literally inside that car for three times as long as I had been on the plane. When we finally arrived at my hostel I let out a big sigh of relief. But then the real trouble started.

As I had suspected, despite our agreed price of $10 USD, he now decided that this wasn’t enough. He then proceeded to demand I pay him $50 US dollars! I should preface this by saying that $10 is a big amount of money in Dili and $50 is a completely ridiculous amount of money to request for an airport to hotel/hostel transfer.

So naturally, I said no. I threw the agreed upon $10 in the front seat and went to get out of the car. As he saw me go to do so, he reached into the back seat where I was sitting and attempted to grab my bag. I had somewhat anticipated this, and luckily was able to push it out of the car door onto the ground outside before he could get it.

He moved quickly though, and when he couldn’t grab my bag, he moved to the next best option. After pushing my bag out I went to jump out myself but I wasn’t quite quick enough. He grabbed onto my hair and yanked me back into the car by my ponytail. I yelled out in pain and shock and reflexively went to hit his face to try and get him to let go. By a stroke of luck I was able to get in a fairly decent blow and one of my fingers (and the corresponding fingernail) definitely made contact with one of his eyes. He immediately let go and I was able to jump out of the cab, grab my bag and run straight into my hostel.

By the time I found another person and told them what had happened, he was long gone.

Afterwards, I was pretty shaken. This was not the first time I had been physically assaulted by a man while on the road, and of the two times in my life that such a thing has happened, this was by far the least violent incident. However, despite it being a relatively minor assault, it brought back memories of a pretty horrible time in my life and it was all I could do that day to not get on the first flight back home. However, doing such a thing would have meant taking so many steps backwards.

The first time I experienced assault at the hands of another human, I was overseas on my very first solo trip. I will not go into details here about what transpired as it would be unnecessarily graphic. However, what I will say is that immediately after it happened, all I wanted to do was go home and forgo any future travelling. I was scared and traumatised and never wanted to go through something like that again.

However, after a few months of grieving and learning how to cope with what had happened, I became fed up with myself. Before it, I had been full of life and plans and happiness. It seemed so unfair that a stranger could not only physically harm me, but in one fell swoop change so much about who I was as a person.

So I decided to not let that happen. I booked  flights back to Europe and I was determined to continue travelling solo and to get back to my old self and not let some asshole completely change the course of my life.

So after this incident in Dili, if I were to go running away back to the safety of home, I felt like all that work and all my past determination would have been for nothing. So I stayed. I talked it out with a family member back in Australia and made plans to head to Atauro Island, a 90 minute boat ride north of Dili the next morning.

I was not going to let that taxi driver ruin this trip. I was not going to regress.


I spent that night hanging out with a bunch of awesome Aussie expats – all of whom were in Dili working for NGO’s. I spent several hours with them and it was exactly what I needed to take my mind off of the events earlier in the day.


After a restless nights sleep I woke up, packed my bags and set off to my next destination, the real reason I had come to Timor-Leste – Atauro Island.


My hostel in Dili had this brilliant illustration on it’s walls showing the layout of Timor. Points of note include the capital of Dili, Atauro (AKA Atauru) island, the Oecussi enclave and Baucau.


As I waited for my ride to the boat (thankfully not another Dili taxi) I was thoroughly greeted by one of the many (many, many, many) Dili cats. There are thousands upon thousands of these small kitties roaming the streets of Dili. I risked getting fleas by petting this little guy, but she wanted a cuddle, so I took the risk and luckily came out without attaining any new flea friends.


Before long, I was on a little speedboat and waving goodbye to mainland Timor-Leste. It was an exceptionally grey day and it did make the mountains and clouds look pretty darn beautiful.



What should have been a 90 minute trip (at most) ended up taking closer to three hours. The boat I had gotten on is a multi purpose speedboat. The owner runs daily scuba diving trips to Atauro from Dili, and people looking to visit Atauro are more than welcome to pay the $40ish bucks for a return trip and tag along.

On this particular day, the scuba dive instructors decided to also take a lot of extra cargo and scuba diving gear to leave at Atauro for future usage. It was all stored in the front end of the boat and as such, the boat could not move as quickly as it normally would. I also get the feeling that with the boat being so front heavy, trying to go more quickly could have put us at risk of an unnecessary sinking.

Eventually we made it to Atauro island and I could not wait to de-boat and see what this little Timorese island had in store for me. Stay tuned!


T H E   L O W D O W N

Getting to Dili: Flights to the Timorese capital arrive from Bali and Darwin
Getting to Atauro: Access on most days is by speedboat, contact Compass Charters via email (svscdili@telstra.com) to organise
Barry’s Place: One of two accommodation options on Atauro – Barry’s is the best!
Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1 with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 lens
Dili Taxis: Overcharging of foreigners by Dili cab drivers is not uncommon, but violent attacks are rare. My experience, though horrible, does not represent the majority of taxi rides in Dili and should not deter anyone from visiting Timor-Leste
Staying Safe: Keep your bags as far away from cab drivers as possible and where possible, try to organise private transfers instead of using cabs
Getting Help: If you find yourself needing assistance in Timor-Leste, the National Operations Centre (NOC) can be of assistance and can be reached by calling (670) 3331283

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20-something year old Australian backpacker writing her way around the world.

102 thoughts on “Dili: A Dreadful First Impression

  1. Wow Ellen. I am glad you are OK. I have some suggestions for punishment of such people but they are not proper in this space. God bless. ❤️

    1. Thanks John – it was a very minor assault but enough for me to be rattled by it. Luckily the rest of my time in Timor was pretty wonderful – so at least the trip had positives that outweighed the one bad day.

  2. Oh man, I’m sorry that you were assaulted for a second time–two times too many. I’m glad that you’re persisting with your travels to put those awful experiences behind you.

    1. Thank you so much Brian – I appreciate that very much. I just hope that the government in Dili continues to persist with trying to clean up and regulate the taxi business – it has been an uphill battle so far but one that definitely needs to be fought!

  3. Glad you’re safe. Good thoughts your way on your adventures. I hope the wind is at your back the rest of your stay.

    1. Thank you so much Nick. Luckily the rest of my time in Timor was wonderful – I will be sharing all the good adventures in the coming few weeks.

  4. WOW, that just sucks. Glad you made it out and have such a positive attitude. Keep safe. Can not wait to see how the rest of the adventure go’s.

    1. Thanks so much Terry. It certainly wasn’t nice, but the rest of my time in Timor was pretty great, so I am glad I stuck it out. Looking forward to sharing all the good adventures with you.

    1. Thank you so much Brittany. It was – once I got to Atauro everything got much better! I will be posting about all the great adventures in the next week so please do stay tuned 🙂

  5. That is a shocking start. I really hope that the rest of the trip is marvelous. Thank you for sharing the bad with the good. Important and amazing work.

    1. Thanks Heath, it wasn’t an ideal start, but things did get much better. I look forward to sharing the good Timorese adventures I had too.

  6. You are so brave!! I just did my first solo travel in march around Ireland but I joined a tour as it was the easiest way to get around. Travelling solo is so liberating but also a bit anxiety inducing… I’m just so impressed with how you handled the situation and that you didn’t let it dampen your time! I loved your writing, my heart honestly stopped and started as I read, I felt almost like I was there myself xx

    1. Thank you so much Billie. Solo travel can definitely be hard work, but at its best times there isn’t much in this world that makes me happier. I would hate to give up something that makes me so happy. I am very lucky in this situation that it was a relatively minor incident. After this my time in Timor-Leste got much better, so please do stay tuned and read about the positive experiences I hate whilst there.

  7. Thanks for sharing everything (the good, bad and sometimes ugly!), I’m glad that you were able to focus on your strengths and not give in to fear after such an unsettling experience – looking forward to reading more!

    1. Thank you so much for such encouraging words. I mostly write about positive travel but sometimes bad experiences do happen, so I felt that such things should be featured alongside the good!

      1. Whether we travel alone or with a companion, it’s always better to know all sides so we can travel safely through the world, you are very brave and I’m glad that you shared your story.

  8. what a story!! I have traveled alone a great deal, and have lived in Indonesia for 20 years. Things happen, some great, others not so, but you are right to keep going, and not let the bad things overshadow the good ones

  9. Shees that was hectic! Much respect and admiration for you for not letting those horrible experiences stop you from continuing to pursue your travels.

  10. I am regularly astonished to discover how many women I know who have suffered violence at the hands of men. I am glad that you were able to escape anything worse from this bozo.

    1. I know that feeling well, when I am not travelling I work as a midwife, and the sheer number of women I care for who have history of suffering physical abuse is just disturbing – it is horrible.

  11. I have such a bad habit of lurking, like I read blogs and never give anything back. No likes no shares, it’s all pretty selfish really. Your blog has been one of the many falling victim to my selfish lurkingnes. Until I read your last post. I was just astonished by your bravery, to keep going like you have. I don’t think I know anyone that could, myself included. Too often enough one bad experience ruins things for life. I guess that’s were all our humans stereotypes and bigotry actually come from.. One bad experience. I don’t know what happened in your past, but I gathered it must have been pretty horrific and you may hear this all the time but you really are an inspiration and not just to women, to people in general. Thank you for sharing your story, and if you don’t mind I am going to share it 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for commenting today Antionette – this comment is incredibly touching and really means a lot. I really really appreciate such kind words. Please do share – travel stories like this don’t seem to be told in ways other than from the ‘solo travel is terrible’ narrative, so getting stories that are not from such a point of view out there is really important.

  12. I’m very sorry to hear that you were assaulted again Ellen, thought i’d missed out on a chunk of your traveling as this happened in January.
    Hope the rest of your travels are safe and wonderful 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Adrian – I appreciate that. You certainly did not miss a chunk, it has just taken me a while to want to sit down and write about this. The rest of my time in Timor-Leste was wonderful though, so I look forward to sharing the good Timorese times and not just the bad.

  13. Wow, sorry to hear you’ve had two experiences of that nature. Sometimes I take my safety for granted when I’m travelling, and then I read about things like this. I’m glad neither experience put you off travelling, nor solo travel as both are so liberating most of the time. Here’s hoping your future adventures don’t include any more scares.

    1. Thank you so much Misty. I hope my future travels are scare free too, but what would be even better would be for everyones travels (and lives) to not have scares such as this!

  14. geez, wow. I’m glad you had your guard up and made it out OK. things like that can happen anywhere, any time. It’s just a worse feeling when you’re travelling, especially if you’e a woman. I’m glad you have he ability to overcome these things in your on way. Safe travels.

  15. Sorry to hear about you terrible experience. Wishing you a safer travels from now on and do not let anything to break you!

  16. I’m glad your self-defense instincts kicked in and that you are safe. You did the absolute right thing, by carrying on. Timor-L’Este does look astonishing.

    1. No I did not think to do that! However I still would have written this post even if I was in contact with the Dili Tourist Board.

  17. Wishing goodness and kindness to you. So sorry you had such an awful experience. Seems like every country has at least some of these kinds of unscrupulous cabbies. You did what you had to do and hopefully taught him a lesson, if not about morality, then at least caution. You may have had made life easier for the next person traveling there. You inspire many people with your travel reports from around the world, and you deserve all the best! You’re a veteran traveler, so I have full confidence in you to find the silver lining, and press forward with your plans. Peace…

    1. What an amazing comment to get. Thank you so much. I certainly do hope that he thinks twice the next time he considers trying to rip someone off – I had not thought of that before but if it helps at least one person in the future then that is a silver lining right there. Once again, thank you so much. Comments like these are what inspire me to keep writing and blogging!

  18. Yikes! It’s quite impressive that you had the self-awareness and discipline to not get caught up in fear after that incident and push past it in order to try to make the most of the rest of the trip. Hope things only get better from here!

    1. Thanks so much Kyle – luckily for me, the rest of my time in Timor was wonderful! I ended up being very happy that I stayed 🙂

  19. OMG. I’m just so relieved you are OK. That pig of a man (not quite the description in wanted) got what he deserved. Shame he didn’t get more and we’ll anticipated by you. I admire your courage and depth of character that doesn’t allow these bad times ruin the good times. Thinkin of you and hope you can put it all out of your mind.

  20. Hi Ellen, I was quite stunned to read this post. Well done on extricating yourself safely and for moving on. Safe travels. Cheers, Mark (Born to Travel)

  21. As another woman traveling the world solo, I am so glad that you kept going onward. I think people always assume that women will be targets of assault if we leave our homes for travel and it isn’t the case. I’m glad you prefaced this by saying that it has only happened once before despite all your travels. Why should we as females sit at home with wanderlust because of what might happen?

    That being said, I am SO sorry you faced such a horrible man and had an experience like this. I know that it brought back painful memories and you had to use incredible willpower to stay and continue on. Thank goodness you have a phone and are able to call home and talk it out. I’m just glad you are safe. I hope that this island was everything you wanted it to be and more.

    Stay safe, strong, and at peace!

    1. Thank you so much Alicia. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said in that first paragraph. As for the second paragraph – I am SO lucky it wasn’t a worse experience, thank you for all the support!

  22. Wow! That attack from the driver was pretty scary! You being very brave to continue your travelling is inspirational! Keep Safe!

  23. What a horrible experience, very unsettling. It makes you very cautious of other good people. Glad to see though these experiences don’t put you off and that you continue to travel solo safely x

    1. Thanks so much Sarah for such a thoughtful comment. My luck improved once I left Dili – hopefully it continues that way 🙂

  24. What a horrible experience but a lucky one too! Brave of you to tell it and also to get on with the travel. Things like that taint your experience no matter how hard you try to put them behind you. Fortunately, bad experiences are relatively rare. Good Luck!

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  25. I’m so sorry you had to go through this horrible experience and relieved that you were able to get out quick and to safety. Be safe, strong, happy and travel on!

  26. Sorry to hear this! I am glad you are okay. Had a violent altercation too before and although it’s been over a year, it’s hard to stop being anxious about the littlest of things. But your sentiments are true – to not let a stranger change your hopes/dreams. Hope the rest of your trip goes smoothly!

    1. I am so sorry to hear that you have had to go through a violent altercation too Julia – it is horrible that so many women have to go through such an experience. Sending lots of strength and support your way x

  27. Glad to hear that you’re okay! Love that you were brave enough to share this experience and not let it stop you from doing what you love. Very inspiring!

  28. Crikey! Not an experience you would want to have once, never mind twice! Congratulations on being true to yourself and for not letting a terrible experience ruin your future ambitions. As it always the case, the minority spoil it for everyone and not being as streetwise in foreign lands gives this kind of scum a degree of opportunity.

  29. A scary start, no doubt about that! I’m glad that you got through it safe and sound, and that you didn’t let one bad apple ruin the whole place for you. Even in the face of something scary, you maintained a great attitude, and that’s quite admirable!

  30. I have to admit I only read this post after reading the one after and knowing that you were okay. Travelling solo is always a risk, but I have much respect that you don’t let it stop you.

  31. Wow, what a moving post. I am so glad you stood your ground with the $10 and that nothing worse happened. I’m also so impressed that even after a bad experience on your first solo travels, you managed not to let that keep you down and have instead done so many amazing things. Great read!

  32. Oh goodness, I am glad you are okay!! That was a horrific experience for you to encounter first thing in the country 🙁 You were very brave, hugs and respect to you <3

  33. I was wondering how, as a female, you manage to travel solo without trouble. But, clearly, you have had your scary moments. Good on you for continue to travel in spite of this cr@p. There are some places though I’d recommend you avoid entirely – there are some complete human hellholes on this planet.

  34. Wow, so brave of you to share your story. I’m so sorry that you were attacked like that. I’ve never had an experience like that in my solo travels but I can absolutely see how that would shake a person and make them want to give it all up. I love your attitude and the lessons you shared here. Good for you for not letting this man take away your passion and motivation for solo travel. I hope the rest of your travels are much safer!

  35. You are brave and thankfully nothing worst happen to you. It is sad to say that there are bad people everywhere. But many good people everywhere also. Safe travels, Ellen

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