Postcards from Timor Leste

There is a small beach town near my hometown which has become a favourite. It is a little known beach en route to a more popular destination where the surf is great and restaurants, coffee shops and the Aussie fish and chips shops abound. The beach of this small town is small and exposed, the wind can leave you housebound for the weekend and there is a one and only eatery at the one and only pub. It may not be a typical Aussie beach destination for the Summer holidays, but the quirkiness, rawness and the memories associated with this little place are what embed it in my heart as a special place. The feeling of having discovered a gem stays with me; the memory of arriving without any expectations and discovering a paradise.

You won’t find postcards of this place.

Timor Leste is another such secret which probably isn’t on many people’s bucket list of places to holiday. There are no postcards to be found, nor are there any tourists to be seen. And there surely isn’t a Lara Bingle promotion asking “Where the bloody hell are you!”

Timor Leste is for many people, not a destination, but a means to an end. It also has a bloody history of colonialization,invasion and the unfortunate Balibo event.

For us, Timor Leste was the jumping off point from Australia, the closest country for us to ship our bikes and to access the exotics of SE Asia. To many Overlanders, it is the source of frustration as weeks are spent waiting for the bikes to either arrive from or in Darwin and to be cleared by Customs. Tales and blogs abound of delayed shipping schedules, custom bungling, incompetence and blown out prices. Travellers are frustrated by the lengthy stalling of processes in Dili coupled with the uncertainty of when exactly the bikes will arrive, in what condition and confusing shipping jargon. Usually, the bungling is blamed upon the local shipping company and Timorese Customs.

Consequently, once the motorbikes do finally arrive, sometimes after three weeks, most Overlanders are impatient to take off west, leaving Timor Leste in their wake. Another hurdle faced in Dili is the Indonesian visa application which needs to be completed in readiness for the first land border crossing.This too has its own protocols and officiousness which we were soon to discover.

“Timor Leste is the poorest Asian country in the world.”
“Everything in Timor is frustrating and they have no skills.”
“The roads are terrible”.
“There is a reason you don’t find Timorese coffee on supermarket shelves in Australia.”
“You will get sick.”
“Have you begun your malaria tablets?”
“Don’t drink the water.”
“There is Japanese encephalitis in Timor!”

Some of the above comments are true, some are exaggerations, some are peppered with truth, some are based on fear and I still don’t understand why their coffee isn’t on Australian shelves! If it is, please try it as it is delicious and unique. Kopi Susu!

After just a week,Timor is now, for both of us, that raw and quirky favourite holiday destination. It is not the war zone it is depicted as, in fact it is incredibly peaceful and safe. Within its chaos can be found paradisiacal beaches, rugged mountains, welcoming villages, exotic foods and proud people who find joy in the simplest of daily activities, especially ours!

We spent our first three days in Dili organising our Indonesian visas and so took accommodation near the Indonesian Embassy (Embassie De Indonesie) via good ol’ Air BnB. Our room was part of staff quarters at one of the Diving Centres in Dili, which seems to be the only thriving tourist industry operating over here. Timor is part of The Coral Triangle and diving is meant to be world class as is snorkelling.

Dive Timor is across the road directly from the port where we could see a number of ships tantalising us. Somewhere out there was The Reliance with our bikes. It was due in on the 30th and we had arrived on the 28th. Yes the dates had changed a few times, but now we were back to the original date of arrival. Arrival does not mean unload however, as the ships wait in port for their turn to unload.

The port is also home to a beach where the coloured wooden outrigger fishing boats are left just lying on the sand. It is a beautiful beach which extends for kilometres and where people jog and walk along at dusk. Children and families come to swim there when the tide is low, jumping off the rocks and the little brown bodies are usually nudey! Men arrive with home made wheelbarrows carrying their motors and fishing nets


Freedom of swimming in Dili
Freedom of swimming in Dili
All smiles
All smiles

It is here I came to know the friendliness of the children, their excitement at having their photos taken and their genuine interest in us. We were obviously a novelty and they tried to communicate even though most of them had little English. A group of young boys kept saying ‘one more’ as they would line up, follow my directions and laugh and smile at seeing themselves in the photos. Even the men thanked me for photographing them and were willing models.The boys asked if I would be there the following day, so I said yes.

The next day I found a photo printing lab and printed seven photos for each of the boys. I had read recently that many of these people in third world countries have no photographic history of their friends nor family and so I wanted to gift these boys a memory of their friendship. At dusk, I waited for the group and there was one boy already waiting for me. He saw the photos and with a big grin, pointed to himself. Then two more arrived jumping with excitement. I asked them to write their names for me on the back of a spare photo and they did so carefully and in their best writing. All of the boys finally arrived and after much laughing and jumping around they each grabbed my hand, brought it to their forehead and then kissed it. Such a simple act had brought so much joy to these boys and I am sure the photos all have a special place in their homes. Imagine what a Polaroid could do!

Being without wheels is like being without legs and getting around a hot dusty city is not much fun this way. However, we managed a few site seeing jaunts, trips to the Post Office and essential shopping whilst waiting for our visas to be processed.

The visa application process can be frustrating and problematic, but we were forearmed with instructions as to how to expedite the process as painlessly as possible. It’s like Monopoly, play the wrong card and you go back one space.

This is the process:
Step1 : Arrive at the Embassie at 8.30am to be at the front of the line to put your name and passport number in the book for an appointment time the following day. Even though you do not enter the building at this stage, you must be dressed appropriately and both men and women must heed this protocol of having your legs covered. ie long pants or sarongs.
If you complete this properly, you will receive two forms to fill out and return the following day. (Fortunately we had a friend who had already completed step 1 for us) If you do not dress appropriately you will be turned away, as was a fellow traveller whose bike and clothes were still in Port. Disrespectful as it seems, he turned up with towels duct taped to his legs! Remember, you can lose a day in the process if you forget this protocol!

Step 2: In aforementioned clothes, arrive at the Embassie at 8.30 (not 9.00 as it says on the sign) to wait for your name to be called out. Just to be sure, Con wore my socks under his sandals as all his clothes were on the ship as well! Both of us were adorned in our $5 Bali sarongs.

Ensure you have the following with you;

a. Passport photo of yourself with a RED background
b. A Letter of Introduction (LOI) written by yourself to The Ambassador of Indonesia on A4 paper in black pen. This outlines your intended route.
c. The two forms must be filled out in black pen also. They will require addresses in Indonesia as well as employer contact details. (Do they verify this information? I doubt it)
e.Copy of passport photo page.
Your name will be called out in the order on the list of the previous day. There is a two step process to check your documents and then, if in order, you are ushered into a waiting area in front of two lokets with a number. Loket one and Loket two are two windows where people wait respectfully on church like pews.
The numbers are called out in Indonesian and fortunately an English speaking nun was kind enough to tell me after about the sixth call that number six was being called. I requested a multi entry visa, but the woman in Loket 1 said that I need a good reason for her to tell her boss. I paid my $50 and left with the appropriate respectful demeanour required by such officiousness.

Step 3: All going well the process should take three days. (Remember,if you arrive in Bali by plane, none of this is applicable and you can arrive in shorts and thongs and pay just $30!)
Dressed in sarongs and covered footwear, we arrived on the Friday at the appointment time of 2.00pm.(you used t have to wear collared shirts!)
At precisely, 2.00pm Friday we were ushered into the Loket area with all the people we had seen on the Tuesday. Once again people waited silently and respectfully on the pews. I had noticed that they all had white pieces of paper in their hands and the nun again kindly informed me that we needed our receipts. Not wanting to be turned away because of no receipts we fished around in our paperwork to locate them. So now we looked just like everyone else with white receipts in hand, long pants and covered shoes. No one spoke, all was quiet.

Once again Loket 1 woman raised her window to the quiet waiting group of respectful citizens.
To my amazement, this time the patient, quiet crowd turned into a frenzy of white receipts being shoved at the woman in Loket 1. There was a rush as they vied to be first, pushing their receipts through the window on top of the pile in the Loket woman’s hand. Realising that we had been left behind, we too pushed in to force our white receipts upon the woman, hoping they had made it into the pile.

As quickly as they had broken ranks, they all quietly returned to their pews to wait in an orderly manner again. The craziness of this outburst of pushy behaviour instantly sent me into fits of laughter which I couldn’t suppress. Once again in silent respect, they all stared at this mad woman laughing at nothing. With that, in walked a late comer to the throng, without a receipt in hand. A fellow Australian had walked into the process without a receipt and just sat down waiting for his name to be called, unaware of what had just transpired. This again sent me into fits of laughter.
After about five minutes of silent waiting and some giggling, our names were strangely called out in some order and Locket 1 woman handed over our passports complete with Indonesian visas. Sigh of relief and we had survived the officiousness and posturing of the Embassie of Indonesie.

So on Friday at 2.00 pm we received our visas for Indonesia and felt pretty smug that we would receive our bikes from Customs as we had been told that the ship had docked. Hence, we taxied it out to TOLL Holdings where our bikes would be delivered, to pay some handling and Customs fees before heading back to Customs at the Port to have our Carnet De Passages stamped into Timor Leste. Having completed this, we waited that afternoon for a call to collect our bikes but we were instead informed that it was a half day Public Holiday, something to do with honouring the dead they said!!

Resigned to the fact that the weekend would be without our bikes we hired yet another scooter, but only one this time with the view to saving money. That afternoon with our new wheels we began exploring Dili and that is when we really began falling in love with the place. We found little dirt roads on the outskirts where people lived in little stone huts and children played in the streets. We also rode up to the famous Jesus Christ statue donated by the Indonesians when they occupied the country.

Around Dili we also saw many, many people carrying water containers around. I assumed this was because they didn’t have running water, but I should know better than to make such rash assumptions. All Saints day is on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2nd. We had stumbled upon the famous Santa Cruz cemetery where a massacre by the Indonesian military had taken place in 1991. (This event helped to bring the Indonesian occupation and cruelties to international attention). Hundreds of people had come to honour their dead ancestors by washing, painting, sweeping and leaving flowers on their family graves. Police were present to control parking and traffic, so we had a quick look and left. This is the public holiday that had held up our bikes in Customs for the weekend. However, I then remembered that this same week, many people in Victoria had a Public Holiday for a horse race! How easy it is to judge other people’s customs and rituals, especially when we don’t understand them. There is a lot more to be said for community and family values inherent in tending family grave sites than having a holiday for a horse race.

Little did we know that this holiday carried on to the following Monday which meant again that Customs wasn’t working. However, by then we were more than happy in the paradise we had found by travelling eastwards for a mere 120kms along the coast on our little scooter, a donkey to do a horse’s work. To Baucau we were bound and a change in attitude.

The condition of roads is in the eye of the beholder. !20kms took us four hours along a twisty and at times, rough road over headlands which provided amazing vistas out to sea. We felt like we were in the last frontier as we travelled through traditional villages, where pigs, goats, buffalo and people were all over the road. Children ran out to wave to us.

Along the way we had met a local couple on their scooter who had recommended we stop at the rest stop ahead for some local fish. Still quite unsure of the fish on sticks, we agreed to meet them there. What a treat it was. these rest stops are Government built open air “restaurants” where the Ikan (fish) and Mayam (Chicken) are cooked on an open fire in little huts just behind. They are served up with steamed rice, which is served in woven palm leaves in the shape of a small package. How delicious they are and so now if we see such a place, with the best of beach views, we stop for a meal, even if it is breakfast time.


We had no sooner said goodbye to our lunch time friends when we met another interesting person in Baucua, our destination. Tony, an Australian volunteer working at the local Tech School offered us accommodation in the local Presbytery for a donation. So off we went to stay with the local Padre and challenge him to a game of scrabble.

Baucau is the original capital of East Timor and still has Portugese influences from the colonialization of the country. The old town has Portugese architectural influences and the old fort by the sea reminds you of the difficult times this country has faced. It also offers reprieve from the heat of Dili with the sea breeze, the Leste.

Ever since leaving Dili we have had a succession of people wanting to help us long the way, from lunch by the sea to the Presbytery accommodation and then to a special lunch invitation with a local family celebrating All Souls Day. In the city of Coral ( Timor is a new country which was pushed up out of the sea and so is largely made up of coral formations) we trekked to the family house where we were treated to amazing hospitality and an especially killed chicken for the lunch.
The young men of the family enjoyed practising their English and talked of their dreams of going to University upon finishing their final year of High School. They were very intent upon this goal and left us wondering how we could help fund this dream. Families are poor and often sacrifice much to send family members to Uni.

After two nights in the cool retreat of Baucau, we returned via the same road back To Dili to wait for the bikes yet again. Monday was another public holiday because of All Souls Day, but on Tuesday we finally received the call to say they were cleared by Customs.

The next day we continued our adventure on our own motorbikes and headed west towards the border of Timor Leste and West Timor. Pot holes and windy roads were yet again in front of us, but we didn’t care as we had our own wheels!
The hospitality continued as we reached a village on The Loes River. the first rain we had seen since leaving Australia descended upon us so we decided to find a guest house.

3 thoughts on “Postcards from Timor Leste

  1. sounds great , you guys are finally slowing down , and its just the beginning . liked the spot check ins in the middle of the ocean !!
    don’t think I want to imagine con in a sarong…let us know about the gps

    cheers andrew


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