Tantalizing Timor Leste

Truth be told,Timor Leste is one of those fringe countries, like Kashmir, that kept being pushed to the bottom of our travel list, for there was never a good (read safe) time to go.

While I must say that Kashmir had been one of our biggest travel disappointments, Timor Leste was one of our biggest delightful surprises.

Surely much depends on one’s expectations and while our Kashmiri expectations were of Moghul proportions, (I know – a pretty bad pun), our Timorese expectations were rather low. Shame on us!

You might not know where and what Timor Leste is and even less so that there are actually two Timors. On the same island. Kinda like two Papuas. In both cases it is the Indonesians that control the West half and the East is independent. Independent Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. To make it a bit more complicated Timor means East (in Indonesian) and Leste means uh, East (in Portuguese). So we have a country of East East. A nice tautological toponym. Oh yeah, I am just showing off my googling skills.

The language there is, no, not East and not Timorese, it is actually Tetum- a local austronesian language influenced by Portuguese (former colonizers) and Indonesian (defeated invaders). Only some of the roughly 1 million population speaks it because there are also many local languages, so to make it easier the second official language is Portuguese. Huh? Yeah, I know.

Oh, all right, enough already. Get to the chase. The travelogue!! OK, OK. Here’s the deal. After doing some precursory Internet exploration on Timor Leste we just about gave up for as the tourism goes the picture was very bleak. Not many flights going there. Really expensive and not just by Asian standards. Tough to travel through. Not a single road finished, only one or two hotels outside the capital. Oh, and the only local currency accepted is, no kidding, US $. Which of course we don’t have on Bali.

Luckily we came across the glowing 5 * reviews of Timor Adventures, a small Australian-Timorese travel agency. You know us, we are tour and agency averse, but in this case we were very happy to exchange a ton of emails and upon arrival felt bloody lucky to have fallen in their capable hands. They got us hotels with air con and private bathrooms, 4 wheel drive cars with drivers and guides, a private speed boat to get us on and off the dive island. If at times we felt like ugly rich Americans we quickly resigned to accept this badge after encountering a few of the other brave souls venturing out into Timor on their own, bedraggled, sun burnt and mosquito bitten.

We saw and experienced in one week more than most manage in many months.

The capital Dili is really not much to write home about: a presidential palace, a bunch of embassies behind high fences, some Catholic churches (that saw massacres of protesting students seeking sanctuary- a concept not familiar to Indonesian Muslim soldiers) and two anchoring statues: a decently large Christo Ray (second only after the one in Rio) looking over the bay and a stately Pope John Paul II. While pope was all alone but for a team of cleaning ladies languidly sweeping, Cristo Ray was besieged by an army of local joggers. There is always money for churches and religious sculptures, even when it is lacking for roads or children’s hungry stomachs.

And then there are these two tantalizingly beautiful secret places, off the beaten track.

I am under oath by Mirek and his few diving buddies not to disclose the name of the first one, a small island where we spend three days on and under water. They simply don’t want anyone to find out and encourage the influx of diving outfits and liveaboard boats. Or god forbid fancy resorts.

As it stands now there is on this secret island only one hotel with 4 rooms. We were the only guests there and were very well taken care of by the numerous staff even if our conversations were rather limited with a few words of English and Portuguese not quite sufficient on both sides.

The hotel also has the only swimming pool on the island and it was mostly hotter than the pretty hot air itself. But it did have the best sunrise view ever.

Oh, did I mention that sunsets and sunrises here are spectacular?

There is only one tiny diving center staffed by a tall, lanky, ever cheerful South African dive master called Bryan commanding a simple yellow wooden boat taking divers (and wimpy snorkelers like me) to the dive sites with absolutely nobody else around.

There are two places to get food, that cannot really be rightfully called restaurants. There are only a few miles of rough roads and then walking paths over the green hills. The beaches are clean, littered only with fishermen’s colorful boats and their children spending endless days full of laughter, playing and swimming, and paddling a small canoe, free range, unsupervised, not one of them older than 5. The clear warm water is screamingly blue and teal and turquoise and green. The reef is the healthiest you will see anywhere, with huge coral walls and gardens with shapes and colors never found before. Zillions of different sizes and colors of fish are fluttering about. Some are like stripped yellow bumble bees buzzing around the blue sky, some are clown fish playing peekaboo in swaying anemone and there are schools of silvery fish traveling down endless freeways taking curves in perfect unison.

Submerging into the deep blue and seeing the fluttering snow storm of tropical fish is pure bliss, incomparable to anything achievable on land. The velvety quiet punctuated only by the tickling air bubbles rising from the divers’ regulators enfolds your body and soul, calms down your whole being. Trancelike, yet hyper vigilant you absorb every new shape and color, your stupefied brain registering every encounter with the smallest to the biggest of creatures as one of a kind, unforgettable, only to be superseded by another and yet another.When we first approached the island by boat we were welcomed by a pod of some 100 dolphins swimming, gracefully diving and gleefully breaching. What is it about watching dolphins that makes us humans so happy? There is just such a joy in their whole being!

One morning I had a unique chance to join a local non profit organization that sells handicrafts on their monthly buying expedition to Makili village where they work with a few groups producing baskets and wooden sculptures. With bad road access we opted to take a boat for an hour ride to the western end of the island. We found the men and women already gathered in the shade with their wares, ready for inspection. As usual, women were surrounded by children, hands busy weaving mats and baskets.While the shop staff carefully selected and documented the products, the coordinator helped translate my questions. I was interested to find out where did the the wood carver find inspiration for his big stately statues of couples. A bit reluctantly he admitted that there were still two large old sculptures, one of a man and one of a woman standing in a circle of stones above his village. You see, the Timorese are all Christians now but in the villages they still practice some rites from the old religion. The old animistic, ancestors worshiping religion was very effectively suppressed by the Christian missionaries, and nowadays it is only somewhat revived under the guise of cultural traditions and national pride. I had a wonderful time sharing some photos on my iPhone from the different carvings and baskets brought home from our many travels. Everyone was very interested and animated to see the same materials used in different ways. Of course I could not leave without purchasing some items straight from the hands of their creators. And not the smallest one either. So much for traveling light! My husband will kill me…

7 thoughts on “Tantalizing Timor Leste

  1. There really is something so special about dolphins – they are so happy, and so similar to us, I think that is why we love to be with them.

    Mom, I assume you bought more baskets for your infinite collection, so much for traveling with only 5 kg! 😄

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  2. Wow, so interesting to learn about a new country! What was the water temperature like for diving? Also, I can’t believe dad let you buy more art!

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    1. The Water temperature in the ocean was 29C (84.2F).
      In the hotel swimming pool the surface of the water was about 4-5F higher under the intense sun rays.
      Regarding the art we bought it goes to our apartment in Prague with my full blessing!

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