Timor-Leste (East Timor) has some unenviable credentials. It is the third poorest nation on earth, 70% of its population are subsistence, it has the least tourist visitors of any country in the world not at war and has 50% unemployment. Aside from that the Timorese are known to be open, friendly and generous people, as we found on our brief visit.
This fascinating country has huge potential with an increasingly educated youth population, a wealth of natural resources and an equatorial climate. Since 2017 they even have a Gay Pride which includes people from the LGBTI community, members of the clergy, tribal folk, students and government officials. Timor-Leste is a leader in South East Asia for gay rights, although unfortunately, it still has not enacted laws to protect its LGBTI population.
Our day visit to this tiny island nation started in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. After disembarking our ship we were welcomed at the port by traditional dancers and our hosts for the day, John and Lilly from Timor Adventures.
While waiting for others to arrive from the ship, Dave the owner of the tour company, explained that life is difficult for most people in Timor-Leste, but more importantly, hostility between Timor and Indonesia has largely been resolved. However, atrocities committed by the Indonesian military prior to independence are still fresh in Timorese minds.
Dave and his wife are playing their part by providing the opportunity for local young people to learn and work in the tourist industry using their local knowledge and cultural heritage to introduce visitors to their land.
The first stop of our tour was Peace Park on the fringe of Dili city. This was the location of Pope John Paul II’s visit and where independence was declared in May 2002. It’s a significant point on the island where most major celebrations for this young nation are held.
On rather rough roads we moved on, hugging the north coast for about an hour, driving past local villages with rudimentary housing, often constructed of bamboo and recycled corrugated iron sheets. Pigs wandered the beaches scavenging for food while goats and cows were common to see in each village. Bananas, paw paws and firewood were sold on the roadside while a large number of children were not in school, although education to the age of 17 is compulsory. Perhaps like other islands we have visited, the arrival of a ship signals a day to focus on tourists and cultural performances, making families a little extra cash.
Our next stop was at Maubara town where we strolled through the ruins of Maubara Dutch Fort. Local women sold traditional Timorese crafts including brightly coloured, hand woven baskets, bags and jewellery. Across the beach at a local cafe we had the opportunity to taste homemade tamarind juice, sweet and sour all at once. We thought it was delicious although it was not to everyone’s taste.
On the only sealed road around the island we doubled back for about fifteen minutes and stopped for lunch at Lauhata Resort to enjoy some delicious local delicacies and great views of the coastline. After lunch we were back in the bus to see the town of Liquica, which was of particular interest for its historical and culturally significant Portuguese buildings, which were unfortunately in serious disrepair. Close by was a beautiful church, the site of a tragic massacre in 1999 during Timor-Leste’s bid for independence.
The prison ruins at Ai Pelo were our next stop, left over from the early days of Portuguese rule in Timor-Leste with the only residents now being a family of timid local goats. The prison, although small, had some interesting hand laid stone masonry which drew us back to times of harsh colonial domination.
Back along the bumpy coastal road to Dili we stopped on the outskirts of town at Sant Cruz Cemetery. Here we visited the site of the massacre of 300 young Timorese separatists by the Indonesian military which captured the attention of the world and thrust the country towards its eventual independence.
In Dili we stopped briefly at the Taste of Timor Craft Market before driving through the city, past Government House and the Presidential Palace, to the Cristo Rei Statue and Areia Branca, a delightful white sand beach. If we had more time we may have climbed the five hundred steps to the top to the Cristo Rei Statue or taken a swim in the ocean but it was time to return to the ship.
Driving back from Areia Branca to the Port we were surprised at the number of beach cafes, restaurants and fresh fruit markets. More evidence of the increasing affluence in Timor-Leste was a Gloria Jeans coffee shop, a golf course and a Hilton Hotel, well under construction.
Although our visit to Timor-Leste was brief it did give us a taste of the everyday life of one of Australia’s closest neighbours. If you are looking for a raw and gritty country to visit that is gay friendly then Timor-Leste might be a possibility. The locals will make you feel very welcome.