Some pour over a Lonely Planet until it’s haggared, or trawl Trip Advisor for hot 5-star tips, months before check in for their flight has opened. It might be lazy, but I like to learn about a place as I go – on the road.
This approach would generally be ill-advised in Timor Leste. There is almost no tourism infrastructure, and only 17 years into independence, with a fragile economy and widespread poverty, the majority of foreigners are aid or embassy employed. Roads are woeful, there is no public transport, and the privately owned, highly decorated buses take forever to get anywhere.
Thankfully, I have an amazing guide to field my endless nerdy questions and four-wheel-drive me on some of the most rugged roads I’ve encountered. Yesterday we did 195km in 8.5 hours including three river crossings and the scariest bridge I’ve ever crossed: a four-meter impromptu number made of split logs and a prayer.
Growing up, I heard about Timor Leste in the Australian news, from Portuguese colony, to 24 years of Indonesian occupation, to its still young independence. Being here, Timor seems to be in a phase of change and transition, a dynamic which – along with the cheerful locals, crap roads, traces of colonialism, and imposing landscape – reminds me of Morocco.
Houses where members of the resistance were tortured or killed during Indonesian occupation have been left untouched, gone to ruin, overtaken by plants and graffiti. These reach out like cold ghostly fingers – reminders of past horror – as we pass. While Catholicism is strong – the new shiny buildings are generally owned by the church – the traditional, mysterious ‘lulik’ spirituality continues to pervade Timorese life.
To the courageous / crazy traveler, Timor’s isolation and lack of tourism are advantages: the sparsely populated, mountainous country is spectacular, and Timorese people are ace. During morning runs I have this exchange about 40 times:
[me] “Bom dia!”
[random local] “Bom dia!”
“Diak ka lai?”
Always diak, which means good. And usually accompanied by a smile, or a giggle at the silly white person running past their house.
Layers of culture, trauma and change, the likes of which are unfathomable to this privileged white girl, subsist together. Despite the immense impact of colonialism, violent occupation, and an uncertain future, the place hums with hope. These things I’ve seen and learned, no Lonely Planet or travel website could ever teach me.