Country: East Timor
Date: 24 May 2014
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been to a new country, and East Timor marks my last unvisited country in Southeast Asia.
My original plan for coming to East Timor was to island-hop my way back to Australia as there are direct flights from Dili to Darwin. The going back to Australia plan fell through, but I kept the East Timor plan. I never thought about how close East Timor was to Australia until I saw this map showing which countries are closest to Australia:
[We’re neighbours! (Image via Reddit).]
East Timor is one of the worlds newest countries, having gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 (read here for a brief introduction). I was pondering this fact at the border crossing while looking at what differentiated East from West Timor.
The language is the most noticeable difference, with Bahasa Indonesian giving way to Portuguese. I was also noticing all the details like the badges on the uniforms and vehicle number plates; all these things had to be designed from scratch 12 years ago.
And of course there is a new currency to replace the Indonesian Rupiah. East Timor has adopted the US Dollar as the official currency, though it issues East Timor centavo coins (via the Portuguese national mint) for $1 and less.
[US Dollars and East Timor centavo coins.]
Crossing over into East Timor and – apart from some flags (probably still up from the recent independence day) – I didn’t notice being in a new country; the villages still look like Indonesia’s East Nusa Tengarra region. Not far into East Timor there is a noticeable depreciation of infrastructure, with paved roads giving way to gravel-and-stone tracks which made the roads of West Timor look like Autobahns.
Most of the road between the border and Dili hugs the coast and for some of the way the road is carved high on a cliff, above the sea. I’m sure one day when this road is paved and safety barriers are erected it will rank as one of worlds great coastal drives. For now though it remains a rather nail biting affair, with a precipitous fall for vehicles that lose its way.
The minibus I was on was having a hard time with the steep climbs of this road. It stalled a few times and the engine sounded angrier after every restart. The bus stalled again and then everyone started yelling; the engine was on fire. We all piled out and waited by the side of the road, watching the fire underneath the engine. It hadn’t rained once in my two weeks of travel around Nusa Tenggara, but it just so happened to be pelting down jungle rain when this happened.
The 12 passengers were standing in the pouring rain while the driver scooped up water from the puddles on the road and splashed it on the engine. Fortunately the fire went out and didn’t spread. I had taken my day bag with me, just incase (it is my baby after all), and it was soaked through.
We stood around for 10 minutes – no one complaining – and lucky for us another van from the same company was passing by. It was full of passengers but everyone made room for us. I was squashed up next to a young man from Kupang and I apologised for being saturated and making him wet too. He laughed and said it is only water.
My next concern was that a van built for 12 passengers was now carrying 24 passengers, but the driver seemed to be handling the extra weight. After two hours we arrived in Dili and I was delivered to my accommodation. The hostel I’m at feels like a hostel from the old days, filled with intrepid travellers who have seemingly been everywhere.
Like much of the Nusa Tengarra region (the islands east of Bali) East Timor doesn’t see many travellers. It seems to be most popular with those looking to get another Indonesian visa and long term wanderers counting countries. When I was in Kupang (West Timor) waiting to get my visa approval letter I met a few long distance motorbike riders who were riding overland from Europe to Australia. You can get a cargo ship from Dili to Darwin so the island of Timor has become part of the international overland highway to Australia.
I have four days in East Timor before flying back to Bangkok for a conference. I will write a separate post on my thoughts and observations on Dili.