I have a profound love for weird countries. I seek them out — I guess you could say it’s become more of an obsession. I think the allure is that the media portrays them inaccurately, or ignores them altogether. I like to challenge the little knowledge I have of those places and I often find that the media has severely misconstrued each place. It’s a blessing and a curse: very few tourists venture to this region, yet the people are so incredibly kind and eager to learn about westerners.
Either way, this is why I found myself in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. There are only a million people living on this island country, desperately trying to rebound after their recent liberation. As with any post-war country, a “baby boom” followed shortly after. The vast majority of the population here is under the age of 20 years old.
I gleaned some vital information from Bency, an Indian expat and a friend of a friend. He was kind enough to drive me from the airport to where I was staying.
Bency has lived here for the last decade and he works with USAID to distribute and export coffee from Timor to Starbucks in Seattle. You best believe I’m going back to Baku with bags and bags of the delicious coffee beans in hand. Anyway, he mentioned I had come at an interesting time because elections are to take place in a few days. We were greeted with some traffic — pick up trucks full of people sporting green and orange, waving flags and frantically shouting into megaphones. The honking of their horns created a steady melody the entire ride to Tracey’s house, where I’d be staying.
Bency mentioned that people are fairly peaceful in this upcoming election, with one political party favored to win by over 60 points. No surprises this time. But, I found out that Timor was first a Portuguese colony nearly 500 years ago.
In fact, Timor-Leste has had inhabitants for at least 5,000 years. The Portuguese brought Catholicism when they settled here and started looking for oil starting in the 1890s. Much of the economy relies on oil now – they are dependent upon it as their only viable resource to export, other than coffee, that is. Even that, the money generated by oil is in the billions. Coffee, on the other hand, only garners $16 million a year.
Australia, and then Japan, invaded Timor in 1941-45 during WWII. Around 60,000 Timorese were killed in this war, which didn’t involve them in the slightest.
Portugal took over again after that, up until 1974, when they swiftly exited from the country. Timor finally declared independence on November 28, 1975.
Only ten days later, Indonesia invaded and a 24 year occupation ensued. Oil production started in 1998, slowly but surely fueling the economy.
After the UN got involved, and the referendum happened in 1999, there was a 2 year rule by the UN. Finally, Timor gained independence in 2002, with an oil surge in 2005-2007. This began to decline in 2012 and has been declining ever since.
As a nation, analysts predict that Timor will be unable to finance its budget in ten short years. They are undergoing signs of the “resource curse,” in the sense that they are acting as if the oil money will last forever. In reality, no more oil money will exist by 2020.
The country is borrowing $1.5 billion in the next five years for massive infrastructure projects, with little means to eventually repay it. Spending continues to go up, with very little money going to education, agriculture, and health.
This information was gleaned after I tagged along to a two hour chat amongst expats in the NGO sector, as they debriefed people on facts before the upcoming election. All of these facts were gained by Laoha Mutuk, the Timor-Leste institute for development monitoring and analysis.
I found out about this opportunity through a friend of a friend whom I was staying with. Tracey Morgan, a Welsh expat that works as a land lawyer, let me stay with her for the few days I was in Dili. I loved her quaint house, trees emerging through her windows, ants marching in a line across her countertops to try and devour the ripe breadfruit in her bowl. One if her five cats, named Hilary Euphrates, lovingly followed me into my bedroom, sneaking under my mosquito net to cuddle every night.
Tracey is the UK honorary delegate, often hosting people in her home. My first night in town, she was holding a five course meal to raise money for women that have suffered rape and domestic abuse here in Timor. They reallocate them, educate them, and provide a safe haven for them. They give them jobs at a local cafe called Auroma Cafe and all the proceeds there go to help the women. As a feminist, my ears perked up, but being the dirty backpacker I am, without a fancy cocktail dress and the $100 for a cover charge, I gave the gala a miss.
The next day, over a passion fruit and orange zest smoothie, Tracey was telling me more of life in Timor. It’s a peaceful place to live, but life is hard for locals. Timor Leste has almost no industry and a tiny private sector. The state budget has grown faster than nearly every country in the world, but it neglects farmers, students, and healthcare.
I spent the day trying to wrap my head around this country, snorkeling with a local dive company on the pristine, deserted beaches that are located 90 minutes east of Dili. It’s beautiful and I could finally breathe a relaxing breath of fresh air without feeling like I was drowning in tourists. I’m back in a place that doesn’t cater to tourism and couldn’t feel more comfortable with the idea.
I thought tourism could possibly save the dwindling economy, yet projections show most tourists don’t want to travel here due to poor infrastructure. Why pay extra money to fly here when Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia caters to tourists at a fraction of the cost?
I hung out with the local driver a bit, letting him play around with my GoPro, as I watched a hog and her babies wander up to our truck. Two dogs soon followed. Then, a man who refused to speak, begged us for a banana and a sprite. Last, to my delight, three baby goats and their mama wandered up to the beach where we were relaxing.
The roads to the beach were perfectly paved until we got to the Heineken brewery. They had invested in a good road to get their supplies in and out. The rest of the roads have been sorely neglected. We spent the rest of the ride swerving, bouncing and bobbling on our seats on the dusty road.
The rest of the afternoon, I wandered town a bit and met up with Bency again to hike the Christo statue that overlooks the sea, toward Atuaro Island. 620 steps later, and we found ourselves watching the sunset from a beautiful view of Dili. After a tiger beer from Beachside Hotel, I called it a night.
The next day, I wandered with Tracey to her neighbor’s house to play some Scrabble and relax. I went on a run and did some yoga, finally finding the only vegetarian restaurant in all of Dili. I sat in on the two hour debriefing where my head was spinning with facts and figures. I had no idea. The American system tends to skip over Timor Leste altogether. Most people are unaware it’s even its own country. I understand why, because West Timor is still Muslim and part of Indonesia. East Timor, with its catholic roots, is an independent nation.
We traveled by Mikrolet, or a shared mini bus, to Little Pattaya for dinner. Ten other Irish expats joined us, talking animatedly about the upcoming elections and their role as “election observers.” It’s their job to report any corruption they may witness at the polls.
I sat across from two locals that started telling me harrowing tales of the Indonesian occupation, as well as some fun facts about Timor.
Otto, a local in a reggae band, told me that Timor used to be called Timor-Lorosae. Timor, in Indonesian means “east.” They changed it to Leste, which also means “east,” but in Portuguese. So really, the country is “east-east,” in two different languages.
Most expats here enjoy a nice, relaxing lifestyle. The social life is surprisingly….social. Some stay for upwards of 10-12 years, usually very content with a slower pace and a relaxed vibe.