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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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