TRAVELOGUE

East Timor: A little off the map and a lot of fun

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EARLIER this year, when seeking to unshackle myself from political and economic analyses, I decided to break free and head off on the road less traveled.

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Not only is it good practice to shake off the cobwebs and test the barriers. It is tremendously liberating to land in a place unlike anything previously experienced.

So please indulge me as I tell of such a place: East Timor, or formally, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

After flying to Bali for the 70th birthday of a fellow journalist, my eye caught on the two daily flights from Denpasar to Dili, East Timor’s capital. I did not hesitate, for that only breeds trepidation and concern about unpotable water and scorpions in the bathroom and strange girls at dark.

I promptly bought a ticket on the Indonesian carrier Srijiwaja Air, which I’d not heard of before but turned out to be fine, although I was bumped off the early flight to another two hours later for no clear reason, except perhaps overbooking.

But the later flight left and arrived on time. I was seated next to Johan, lead singer in one of Dili’s better known bands, and was invited to his next gig three days later. That’s how it goes when you escape.

The first task on entering Dili’s tiny terminal is to fork out $30 for a visa on arrival. No need to change money: the American dollar is East Timor’s currency, and Timorese happily accept dirty and crumpled notes.

After exiting, I popped in the nearby Timor Plaza, a spiffy new mall that would not be out of place in Sydney, and picked up a SIM card for $5. Connectivity turned out to be good, as it was for Internet.

Then it was straight off along the corniche that hugs the long crescent-shaped bay and leads into the town. Dili is like a cross between a South American pueblo and a medium-sized spot in the Philippines, like Dumaguete.

Ringed by jaggeddy mountains and facing an opaline sea with an island on the horizon, it has a location to die for and that laidback, slightly seamy, Hispanic-cum-Asiatic flavor of somewhere edgy and fun to discover.

Where to stay? I’d been torn between a hotel downtown or one along the scenic seafront strip.

I looked over and liked the waterfront Hotel Esplanada; it has a large pool and a decent restaurant at which Johan’s reggae-style combo plays every Thursday.

Next door is the best bar bistro in Dili, the Nautilus, where, if there’s any action in town, Bruce and the boys will know about it.

That said, rather than the Esplanada, I decided on the centrally located Discovery Inn, with return airport transfer, unlimited internet usage, and loads of eateries nearby — notably the renowned Kebab Club, plus its own, and arguably Dili’s classiest restaurant, the Diya.

Aside from the splendid staff, including father and daughter owners, Sakib and Zeenat, resident manager Ryan, and the incomparable driver Honorio, another of the Discovery’s assets is the complimentary happy hour every evening which includes a plate of zesty tapas and two drinks.

Although East Timor is somewhat off the map, when I joined the happy hour group, it immediately felt as if I’d been welcomed to a magical house party. I met locals and visitors alike and the conversation ranged far and wide, and covered trenchant appraisals of the region’s leaders and their policies.

Next day, what to see? Dili has a list of standard sights, but I’d focus on four of them: the Cristo Rei Statue, the Resistance Museum, the Santa Cruz Cemetery, and best of all: Chega!
At the far end of the bay, the hill top Cristo Rei, a rather naff copy of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer monument, was ironically built by Muslim-majority Indonesia in 1996 to mark the 20th anniversary of its occupation of East Timor.

While that may leave a sour taste, it’s still nice to climb up to the statue at dusk and take in the gorgeous view of Dili and the bay and surrounding mountains.

The vast and rather garish Santa Cruz Cemetery is where Indonesian troops massacred a peaceful procession of Timorese in 1991 — a bloodbath that galvanized the pro-independence movement.

Dili’s elegant new Resistance Museum commemorates the guerrilla war against the occupation, but more evocative of this victorious struggle is Chega! — Portuguese for “Stop, enough!” — a former Guantanamo-type torture center run by the Portuguese and later the Indonesians.

It contains incredibly moving murals and etchings scratched into the walls by detainees, and some heart-stopping “dark cells” where prisoners were essentially left to rot.

After that, some light respite was needed, so I cut along to La Esquina on the Rua Berlamino Lobo, and ordered caldo verde soup, followed by cured ham, cheese, olives and red wine, and finished off with an espresso and an aniseed-flavored Liquor Beirao.

Next day, it was time to venture further afield and take a minibus 130 km eastward along the winding coast to lovely Baucau, where a typical Portuguese pousada offers excellent rooms and meals.

It also affords access to a garden area with a large spring-fed swimming pool, and there is a steep and circuitous paved lane down to one of those untouched beaches that you thought were extinct.

Not this one. It reminded me of Boracay and Ngapali and Sanur in years gone by. And I was the only person on it. And I called Bangkok to let others hear the gentle sussuration of waves breaking on the white sand.

Some things you can’t buy.

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