Okay, I was extremely geeked out to be visiting Timor Leste for the following reasons.
1. Timor Leste (or East Timor) is one of the world’s least visited countries, and you know my love for bizarre and less-traveled places. Shout out to one of my travel idols, Gunnar Garfors, who published this awesome The 25 Least Visited Countries list. He, and the list, give me so much motivation.
2. Timor Leste is one of a handful of nations whose official language is Portuguêse; and probably, the most random. There are a handful of these Portuguêse speaking countries in Africa…but then you just got this one stray piece of an island in the South Pacific that was colonized by the Portuguêse. Just so random. I remember having to learn the names of all the Portuguêse speaking nations in my POR101 class at community college. I never in a million years thought I’d physically be going this place, ever! It was just a name in a textbook…and now, I’m here! And of course, very excited to be able to speak the native language.
3. And finally—and boy am I a nerd for this one—I am just way too excited to be staying in a city called Dili. This means I get to walk around town and ask people “What the Dili, yo?” for three straight days. Yes, these are the little things in life that give me pure joy.
So how to you even get to Dili? Looked like the easiest way in and out for me was through Bali. What a shame I’d only stay in Bali for an overnight layover. I was sad to be right there in paradise, only able to enjoy the confines of my airport hotel, but I’ll be back.
Come Fly With Me
Sriwijaya Airlines goes down in my book as one of the weirdest airlines—just because of the name itself, which I cannot even pretend to pronounce. The flight attendants were stunners, in the most exotic and mysteries ways. They wore long maroon dresses, hijabs, and had names like Poppy Pustieka and Viori. I got scolded trying to sneak some video of them. Can’t blame me for trying. They said a prayer over the loudspeaker for a safe journey.
I never get tired of the fact that they feed you on such short flights in most other countries. A brother is lucky if he can even get a one-ounce bag of peanuts on a five-hour U.S. flight, but here they fed us a complete hot meal on a trip lasting but 90 minutes. Chicken, rice, pink Jell-O. Before I knew it we’d landed in Dili, right next to the water. It was a sunny day and I couldn’t tell if I was in the jungle or the desert.
I purchased the $30 visa on arrival before making it over to the immigration counter. I was so excited to use my Portuguêse in such a random place. I had to control my excitement when I let out that first “Boa tarde” to the immigration officer. After leafing through my passport and confirming it was my first time in the country, the female officer told me I’d have to meet “The Commander.” She said this was customary for a first visit. Many people might have been afraid, or bothered by this—I was actually very excited; then disappointed when I found out he (or she) wasn’t available. I really wanted to meet “The Commander!” After getting my stamp, it was a ten-dollar, ten-minute ride to my hotel, doing my best to figure out this town from the car window.
The Plaza Hotel looked average from the outside; but I was impressed with the room, which was more modern than its exterior. I had a quick rest, then couldn’t wait to break out and explore Dili. I’d only have two nights.
No Time to Dili Dally
I took my stroll past a monument and a small collection of fruit stands before stopping for a fresh agua de coco. From there I began what seemed like a five-mile walk along the coast, passing various little parks, plazas and concrete monuments. The sun’s heat was tempered by a nice sea breeze, as I passed the locals enjoying their day.
A Three-Hour Tour…
Soon I was at the port, where I couldn’t help but notice hundreds of people piling into what looked like a cargo ship. The back of the ship was opened up wide with crowds marching straight in, luggage in hand. Some carried what looked like giant bags of rice, others walked in their motorbikes. Scores of other people watched from the fence, while others with tickets in hand fought to slip through a secured gate, like they were trying to make it into some sold-out concert. It looked as if maybe room on the ship was running out as frantic passengers waved their boarding passes and pushed to make it inside the port. Curiosity got the best of me, as I knew I couldn’t leave without finding out where these folks were going. I asked a couple of onlookers, who explained to me that this was a ferry, about to take the twelve-hour voyage to a place called Oecusse. I figured it was an island, but later found out Oecusse is an enclave. (ˈenˌklāv’: a portion of territory within or surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct.)
Still, with all the info, I had to see more—so I bravely tried to get lost in the sea of people to get through the gates. When I got to the opening and the agent asked for ticket, I simply asked him if I could just pop in for a look, and to my surprise he said yes! For the next ten minutes I hung around the Berlin Nakroma, doing my best to peer inside and get a good look. I suppose if I wanted to press my luck, I probably could have walked on, but I didn’t want to overstep my welcome. Oh, how I wondered what the accommodations inside were like inside. Chairs? Benches? Cots? This was not a cruise liner with staterooms. I couldn’t imagine being on this thing for twelve hours. Something to Google later.
After the port, it was on with my walk, passing more monuments and a boardwalk, before reaching the Centro Supermercado where I popped inside to investigate. I love browsing the aisles of foreign grocery stores, especially in the lesser-known countries. I’m always interested to see which American brands have made it over, and what new and weird items I’ll spy.
On with my journey, next I passed a row of embassies. I was surprised at the panicked reception I received at the US Embassy when I decided to snap some pictures from my iPhone. Mind you I was all the way across the street when I took out my phone for an Instagram video, when almost instantly I saw the flailing arms of the security officers and one of them jogging across the street to question me. By the time he reached me, I had my US passport card ready, to at least show him I’m an American. It did the trick, and a minute later I was on my way, shaking my head. I later sent the US Embassy – Timor Leste a Facebook message asking them what their Dili-O was. I didn’t get a response.
Ain’t No Party Like a Timor Leste Party…
I must have walked at least three miles and I was pooped; just about ready to give up for a cab back to my hotel. Thankfully I meandered a few more blocks to find myself in the middle of a giant street party. The “Dili Night Market” was a collection of food and craft tents set up in the middle of an outdoor, three story mall, named “Timor Plaza”—certainly the newest, biggest and most modern structure in town (and the country, I’m sure). Just two minutes earlier I was walking down dusty back roads with chickens clucking and old men pedaling fish just caught from the sea; and now I’m front and center watching a girls dance troop perform to “All About That Bass.” I couldn’t help but giggle.
I spent the next three hours hanging out at the night market and exploring the little mall. I had a very interesting meal consisting of peppered (too much pepper) chicken and a dish of gelatin, flavored milk, ice cubes, and bread squares called Es Lapangan Tembak. It was weird, but wasn’t bad. After dinner, I contemplated on visiting the casino at the mall, but instead settled on a 90-minute Chinese massage on the second floor. By the time my rub was over, it was nine. The market was closing down and I was ready for bed. I took a cab back to the hotel and it was lights out.
This was my only full day in Dili. I once again set out on foot to explore, this time heading inland. I had a nice “English Breakfast” at the De’Samer Café before passing what looked like a school of some sort, with a music performance going on inside its courtyard. Recalling my good fortune at slipping inside the shipyard with no trouble the day before, I decided I’d try my luck at this school—and try and get a peek at whatever show was happening. It took me about ten minutes to figure out it was some kind of “Timor Leste Idol.” There were performers wearing numbers, a table of judges, an assortment of trophies, and a couple hundred spectators. I stayed for a couple songs—sung in English—and then continued my stroll through town.
Next I passed The University, as I figured I’d try three for three, and meandered right in. There was class going on in the various rooms and students hanging out in the courtyard. Nothing too exciting. I secretly wished I could be a special guest speaker at the English class, that would’ve been totally cool.
Sights and Stops
After the college I found myself at the entrance to Dili’s Tais Market, which is famous for its handmade fabrics created by the Timorese women. I browsed the stalls and bought a few souvenirs. The vendors were friendly but not aggressive at all like many other markets.
I was happy I was able to take the quintessential “Gringo surrounded by a group of kids” pic; those really are my favorite to take. “Meester, meester,” they chanted, as they took a break from their soccer game to be a part of my selfie. I gave them a five-dollar bill and you would’ve thought it was Christmas time! They quickly ran off with their treasure. I can only imagine (and hope) they enjoyed a big bag of chips and soda.
Sadly, I was never able to locate the radio station I’d planned on visiting. According to the Internet, 88.1 was Dili’s only English-speaking radio station and I was looking forward to dropping in to say hello and pitch my radio show, but had no such luck.
My feet were killing me, so I dropped into another spa on the way back to the hotel. My feet were still sore from the strong foot massage I had two days ago in Brunei, so this one was a little tough to endure at times. The Indonesian masseuse had some strong thumbs, and I found myself crying out in pain at least a dozen times. He must’ve thought I was a total pussy!
Have It Your Way
After the massage, it was back to the hotel for some chill time. I needed to recharge my phone and my body. I was starting to feel the effects of nonstop travel. When I start a trip, the excitement and exhilaration keeps me going, but sooner or later the back-to-back flights and strange beds start to wear on me. Today was one of those days. I could tell this, because I was finally craving fast food; or something familiar. In the beginning of most trips, I’m all about trying everything local. But sooner or later I just want a burger and fries.
Luckily, there was a Burger King just one block away. In inhaled that delicious BBQ burger, fries and Pepsi; sooooooo good after a week of weird food. I noticed that I was the only customer in the joint, and wondered how they stayed in business. It also happened to be the only American chain I’d seen in Dili. No McDonald’s or KFC, which seems to be everywhere! Just a BK. I was hoping so bad to see a Dairy Queen. I saw them in my two previous stops of The Philippines and Brunei. But no DQ in Dili. And why did I want Dairy Queen so bad, you ask? So I could eat a Dilly Bar in Dili of course…a “Dili” Bar, get it? Wouldn’t that have been cool!?
After the mid-afternoon snack it was off to see the number one attraction in the country: Cristo Rei. This was Dili’s version of Rio De Janeiro’s Cristo Retendor (Christ the Redeemer). A five-dollar cab ride took me to the base of the mountain where the statue was perched. I’d have to get to the top myself, which was a very pleasant 15-minute walk up some not very steep steps, with great views all the way up. The sight from the top though, was incredible, with beaches on each side of the peak and giant baby Jesus standing on top of a giant globe, with arms wide open. I spent some nice moments up top, then headed back down the stairs and over to Cristo Rei Beach where I contemplated a swim (I brought my trunks), but didn’t go through with it.
The ride back to the hotel was one of the highlights of my stay in Dili. In many of these foreign (and poorer) countries, there are usually very different “modes” of public transport. Many of these less developed nations don’t have the “standard” city buses that we’re used to in the US and other cities across the globe; instead they rely on more “creative” means of transportation, which usually means some sort of random van, modified for public use. Such was the case in Dili.
Here, they used these tiny vans, called Microlets. And the looked like Micro Machines! And they were everywhere. Almost my entire time in Dili, I had been tempted to jump in one just to see where it might take me. I figured it would be a cheap and fun way to see the city. I decided to go through with it when I realized there were no cabs at the base of Cristo Rei to take me back.
By the reactions of the passengers in the van, I’m guessing it was a rare sight to see a Gringo in a microlet: the three young ladies in the van with me giggled the entire time, and played peek-a-boo with my iPhone as I attempted taking a few selfies. The van was so small I had to sit hunched over the entire time. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it sure was fun. We stopped along the way half a dozen times to let people in and out. The microlet finally conveniently made a stop right outside of the Burger King that I’d eaten at earlier, which was only a block away from my hotel. I slipped the ladies my Ramblin’ Randy business card before parting ways. One of them ended up adding me on Facebook later that night. (If you’re reading this, hi Lennhy!)
For a guy who hadn’t been to the gym in months, I sure got a lot of exercise my two days in Dili. And all that walking was catching up to me; I was tuckered out! I spent the next couple hours horizontal, watching CNN and perusing social media. I fought the urge to fall asleep so early and forced myself out of bed and downstairs for a late dinner at The Great Wall Chinese Restaurant next door. The restaurant was pretty full with white folks—Portuguêse people who I think worked at the embassy in Dili. I ended up chatting up the waitress towards the end of my meal. It was the first decent conversation I’d had the whole time in Dili, which brings me to a couple of notes about the people and language there.
Do You Understand The Words That Are Coming Out of my Mouth?
First, the language. I came in thinking I’d speak a lot of Portuguêse, like I was in Brasil; but that wasn’t the case. While Portuguêse is the “official” language, I don’t think it’s the necessarily the language of the people. I learned that real fast. There are a ton of native languages spoken in Timor, with the most common being Tétum. I think what is often spoken here is a weird mix of Tétum and Portuguêse. Also, the Portuguêse spoken in East Timor is Portuguêse Portuguêse, not Brasilian Portuguêse. It had me all really confused at first.
Now, for the people—at least my observations: I feel confident in saying, out of all the places I’ve traveled, Dili seemed to have the most laid-back, relaxed people I’ve even seen, anywhere. Chill in every way. For example, you rarely heard a car horn, unless it was the light taps from the taxi drivers letting you know they were available. I didn’t hear anyone shout the entire time, nor blast music from their cars for that matter. And no one bothered me whatsoever. No beggars, no one was trying to hustle me. I did enjoy the smiles from the curious children, who probably don’t see many Gringos milling about. I got smiles from many of the adults, too. The two male cashiers at Burger King shook my hand and seemed very happy to meet an American. Overall I’d say the people of Dili are friendly, yet reserved and even a bit shy. From the few personal interactions I had, I did think the Timorese were quite wonderful.
Here are my two days in Dili, captured with a series of 15-second video clips, from Instagram (follow me @slowjams please!) Enjoy!
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