Emerging out of a turbulent past, the young Pacific nation of East Timor hopes that its future will be like sailing on calm seas – sometimes literally, writes Manuela S. Zoninsein

For decades, Timor-Leste, known in English as East Timor, has been regarded as a diminutive underdog, muzzled by successive occupations by Portugal, Japan and Indonesia. In 2002, it finally earned its independence but years of political violence ensued. Although the country’s political situation remains fragile, it is generally a safe place to travel as long as vigilance and respect for local customs are exercised.

Think neighboring Bali before the bourgeois bohemians arrived by the planeload, or the Maldives in the days without high-end hotels, or Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha prior to receiving national park status and Unesco World Heritage designation: that’s what you can expect from East Timor. The country is still struggling to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure and economy, but its imperfection is also part of the charm. Travellers jaded by packaged vacations served on a silver platter will find themselves at once won over.

So will those enticed by the broad variety of natural and human wonders packed into a country just 15,410 sq km in size, making it an equally fitting destination for two days of beach and snorkel time or two weeks of expansive touring. Landscapes veer from rugged rocky hills up to forested peaks atop limestone cliffs, and back down into homespun villages nestled between savannah-like valleys. Tropical flora and fauna flourish, rice paddies are groomed with care, and lontar palm forests encircle crisp white-sand beaches. One upside to the years of conflict is that tourism and oceanic exploration have remained minimal, and so much of the surrounding marine life is well preserved.

From the city of Dili proper, head straight east along the main, unmissable coastal road, toward the watchful gaze of the shadow of Cristo Rey, or Christ the King. Here sits Areia Branca Beach, which, like its Portuguese name suggests, is popular for its white sands and overflows with locals and foreigners alike on weekends. Further afield is “One-Dollar Beach”, so-called because Timorese children used to playfully charge visitors a single American dollar (still the de facto currency) to get onto the expansive, cream-colored coast.

For those seeking to explore more of East Timor, rent a car to reach Com, a beach town that is a little far-flung but worthwhile to visit (it’s a bumpy half-day drive away so allow a few days for this excursion to fully enjoy it). Using Com as the base camp, you may go visit the stunning Jaco Island, considered sacred by indigenous communities. Development is forbidden here, allowing the indigo water to remain serene and teeming with both whales and dolphins – a rare sight in combination. It’s possible to take a fishing boat across the short channel from the mainland and spend a day on this private island.

Like its culture and terrain, Timorese food incorporates a variety of seemingly disparate elements: Portuguese and Indonesian dishes take on local flavors by using distinctive ingredients from the region: fresh fish (especially tuna), coconut tree fronds, numerous cassava varieties, tamarind sweets, bitter leaves from papaya trees, and rich, nutty, always-organic coffee. Popular are seaside Iberian restaurants specialising in grilled fish. According to tradition, side dishes are generally classic Portuguese, including French fries, feijoada and simple salads consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and lettuce, with peppery home-made vinaigrettes as dressing. A popular choice for the President of Timor-Leste, Nobel Prize winner José Ramos-Horta, is Restaurante Sagrés (on the waterfront en route from the city center toward the Christ statue, +670 723 5455).

European-style fresh-baked breads (starting at US$1) can be had at Lily’s Bakery & Pastry (38 Rua Belarmino Lobo Bidao Licidere; no phone); for Portugal’s famed rich desserts, check out the coffeeshop in Hotel Timor Dili (Rua Mártires de Pátria, +670 332 4502), where egg tarts, cream pastries and rich chocolate cakes (US$2 for most; US$3 for the latter) are on-hand.

A broad selection of Indonesian varieties spanning the archipelago and also incorporating Thai, Malay and Chinese flavors is on offer at StarCo (167 Avenida Presidente Nicolau Lobato, just west of the Discovery Inn). As it’s popular amongst both locals and expatriates (for both flavor and price considerations, US$2 to US$3 including rice), the mouth-watering buffet lunch runs out quickly.

One notable element of the push to develop tourism here is the innovative social-entrepreneurial projects supported by aid groups, government initiatives and private funds, among which a handful of eateries seek to teach residents hospitality skills that will stay with them for life, adhering to the mantra “teach a man to fish.” Mos Belé, housed in an old Dutch-built fort (that was later taken over by the Portuguese) in Maubisse, 70 kilometres south of Dili, is developing a locally-sustained form of commerce and tourism  and showing handicrafts makers how to produce world-class products that include beautiful coasters and tablecloths. Kafé Aroma (Rua Bella Arminio Carmindo Alves, across from Lily’s; +670 755 8735) trains and employs women escaping from abusive households. It’s also known to some as having the best coffee in town. Timorese coffee – always organic, always fair trade certified – is often quickly whisked away to the US and Australia.

This is tourism unfiltered by tour operators and touts, without the premeditated checklist of “things to see and do.” Rather, Timor-Leste enables all travelers to tailor-make their own itineraries and create their own unique experiences. As Timorese are learning to stand on their own legs in advance of the UN peace-keeping force’s departure, take a trip here and be a part of the country’s story of revival. When this beautiful bird takes flight, you can say you were a part of its awakening.

SIDEBAR 1: Get busy

Scuba dives and snorkels trips can be arranged easily: trips, classes and equipment are offered through Dive Timor Lorosae (http://divetimorlorosae.com). Atauro Island is broadly thought the best dive site – located 25 kilometers from the mainland, the 45-minute speedboat ride crosses the Ombai-Wetar deep-water channels that support abundant fish and coral life. The current slowly tows divers along the sloping, underwater walls for leisurely viewing. This, and tens of dive sights located within 45 minutes of Dili, served as the backdrop for the first-ever Timor-Leste Dive Photo Competition, which in October brought 100 underwater photographers to shoot marine scenes within a time limit.

Other recent events whose purpose is to unify the nation under the banner of peace include the second-ever Tour de Timor and the inaugural Dili International Marathon, both annual events. The 420km, five-day bike trek brought together locals and foreigners in a competition that challenges physical limits. Ultimately, the hope is that Timorese will see their country united across mountain divides.

Two more events have just launched: The Mt. Ramelau culture festival, at the end of each October, celebrates mountain cultures with nearly 500 participants atop Timor’s tallest mountain (2986 meters), highlighting the island’s depth of diversity. Likewise, the inaugural International Sport Fishing Competition of Timor-Leste, starting this month for a bi-annual basis, will bring together a mix of domestic and international contestants for world-class game fishing.

SIDEBAR 2: Where to stay

Tourism in East Timor is in its infancy, so be prepared for amenities and service not at the levels seen in more developed destinations. The natural charm of the place and the locals’ genuine warmth and sincerity more than make up for it.

California Hotel

Located in East Dili (15 minutes by taxi from downtown, about US$5 at night), this hotel is located right across the street from the beach, which can be viewed from the well-appointed open-air dining room. Areia Branca is merely a 10-minute jog away. The staff is attentive, the rooms are comfortable and clean and there is also internet connection (Ethernet only). Rooms begin at US$75.

Estrada da Areia Branca, tel: +670-7345678

Arbiru Beach Resort

One of the newer high-end hotels, Arbiru offers the standard package for foreigners seeking creature comforts: bedroom with lounge and kitchen, restaurants serving international food, and one of the few swimming pools in town. Located in West Dili (also requiring 15 minute cab ride from the city centre) it faces a beach that is popular for watching the sunset. Rooms begin in the low US$80s.

Aldeia Meti 1, tel: +670-764-5477

Pousada de Baucau

A highly recommended day trip (a two-hour drive) is Baucau, an expat hotspot in the 1970s, hidden in the jungle hills east of Dili. This bougainvillea-pink Pousada was built by the Portuguese in the ‘50s and retains colonial charms, including a wrap-around porch decorated with rattan furniture, an Iberian-style restaurant serving delicious food and simple but quaint rooms furnished with teak Mission furniture. Transport to beautiful Baucau beach and nearby spring-water swimming pool is included. US$65 per night includes breakfast and 5 percent tax.

Downtown Baucau, tel: +670-7241111

www.pousadebaucau.com

Com Beach Resort

Considered a weekend getaway amongst Dili denizens, this brings together the requisite thatched-roof bungalows, a convivial outdoor restaurant as well as palm trees and ocean waves. Standard room for one person with shared bath is US$25 per night, bt comfort level can go all the way up to a private lounge, dining room, balcony and bath for $330.

Call Yono, the manager, for reservations: +670-7283311

SIDEBAR3: How to get there

At the moment, three airlines serve Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport, named after East Timor’s national hero. Air Timor (www.air-timor.com) flies the Singapore-Dili route twice weekly on Tuesdays and Saturdays. From January 13, 2011, a Thursday flight will be added. Airnorth (www.airnorth.com.au) flies between Darwin and Dili twice on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and once every Friday. From Bali’s Denpasar airport, Merpati (www.merpati.co.id) travels to Dili once daily.

SIDEBAR 4: Useful Cultural Tips

Money

US dollars are accepted everywhere. Only the most upscale restaurants and hotels have credit card readers so it’s best to come prepared with wads of cash, which you can keep in your hotel safes. ATMs are hard to come by: there is one in Hotel Dili and some at the Tiger gas stations. Tips are increasingly expected but they do not need to be much.

Language

Few Timorese speak English – everyone speaks Bahasa as well as the local Portuguese-influenced Tetum, and the older generation speaks Portuguese. Yet, people are friendly and often willing to assist however they can.

Etiquette

Greetings: The Portuguese style of greeting with two kisses on the cheeks is common between people who know each other well. Otherwise it’s a simple handshake, regardless of gender. Never address anyone older or in a superior position as “you” in any language.

Dress: Scant attire commonly seen in other holiday destinations may be regarded as disrespectful here. Women may want to dress conservatively, covering shoulders and knees, especially in churches. Men should also avoid wearing shorts when going to places of worship. On the beach, a bikini or Speedo might attract curious looks from locals, except at the Areia Branca beach in Dili.

Respect: There is not a family in Timor that did not have a friend, neighbour or family member killed during the 1975 to 1999 Indonesian annexation, and similar atrocities befell them in 2006/7. All Timorese have been faced with violence at some points in ther lives. It is important to be sensitive with that.

Transport

As with travelling in any developing country, vigilance is needed. There are taxis everywhere, but it is still safer to call for one. Be sure to reach an agreement with the driver on the fare before setting off – no one here uses the metre. Agostinho, who speaks Portuguese, Tetum and a bit of English, is a reliable driver (+670 7261199). To hire a car, there are numerous travel agencies and rental companies. Rentló is one of the oldest: +670-741-6983. VIP Travel Agent (+670-732-9990; vip_travelagent.yahoo.com), centrally located on the ground floor of the Timor Hotel Dili, is a reliable travel agency.

Originally published in the December 2010 edition of Asia Business Traveller. To view the original article, along with photographs, in PDF format, click this link: Out Of The Shadow.


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