Every traveller dreams of a place untouched by tourism. But in our globalised world where ordinary people can be in another continent in mere hours, the search for the ‘authentic’ often turns out to be an Eldorado, always glittering just out of reach. If untouched places do exist, it is usually because war and the risk of being kidnapped are effective deterrents for most people.
I’m sure it’s true that some who seek the ‘untouched’ just want the most exotic stamp in their passport, the wildest travel stories – they want to bask in the intrepid after-glow of having gone where no one else has. But I also think some people are simply looking for a place where an exchange between two people from different countries can occur without the sleaze and hustle. Without a monetary motivation lurking behind every smile and every joke. Where travel can be at its purest and most genuine – a meeting of two worlds, without any expectation.
There’s been a lot written about Timor-Leste as this place. The land before tourism. Not entirely true. There are around 60,000 international arrivals to the country each year, and of these around 17% (just over 10,000) are tourists, according to a survey funded by AustralianAid. Tourists like us. And the four others we met in our week there, retired Australians on a diving trip. But it’s fair to say that the number and type of international visitors the country attracts makes it about as close to this untouristed paradise as you’re likely to find. What is more remarkable is that you can get this experience an hour’s flight from Darwin, and in a country that can be visited quite safely. Ok. Yes, there is the question of road safety, malaria, rampant dengue and the increasingly unlikely, but real, possibility of political unrest breaking out again. The Australian Government advises travellers to exercise a high degree of caution, and you’re definitely not encouraged to wander about the streets of the capital, Dili, at night, when most crimes take place. But in terms of violent crime, the vast majority of incidents target other Timorese people. Expats and tourists are not commonly affected.
I had initially resisted the idea of going to Timor-Leste. We would only have a week to explore the country. But public transport, according to all my googling, was slow, limited and subject to bad roads and frequent break-downs. Given our limited time, a tour seemed logical. Group tours aren’t exactly a big thing in Timor-Leste, given the tiny volume of tourists, so it would have to be an expensive private tour. Instinctively I hated the idea. How could I swallow the bitter indignity of being herded around like a sheep? And there would be no pretence of being down-to-earth, modest travellers if we were travelling with a private car and a tour guide. How would we have any meaningful exchanges with people? It would be selling out my backpacker roots and officially signing up as a yuppy.
But my curiosity and a sense of adventure won out. Yes, we could travel for a month on the same budget elsewhere in Asia, but if our money was going into responsible travel in this tiny, brave country, then maybe it would count for something beyond our experience as tourists, anyway.
It was a beautiful flight. Crossing Timor-Leste I looked down over huge, jagged mountain ranges and wide rivers rushing into the ocean. We landed, and minutes later we were through the low-key airport and catching a taxi through the dusty streets, into town.
Dive Trek Camp East Timor picked us up from our hotel the next day in a four-wheel drive. Our guide was Kym, an Australian who had lived in Timor-Leste since 1999 when she came to work in logistics for the UNHCR. She was a tiny but tough woman who had lived in the country so long that there was no question of it being her home now. Zu was our driver, who had worked at the company for years, and as we were to discover, was able to navigate the most challenging of roads without breaking a sweat, and without hitting any of the many and varied animals that suddenly appeared in front of our car in the following days. Anastacio, or Anas, was our trainee guide. In his early twenties, Anas was an earnest and open-hearted guy who was to keep us entertained on long drives with the latest pop and RnB hits playing out of his phone over the coming days. So the tourists were officially outnumbered by guides.
Our first stop was a military compound on our way out of Dili, where we showed our passports at a checkpoint, before being led in to feed two very large pet crocodiles with chickens dangling on sticks. In Timor-Leste crocodiles are revered as sacred animals, as they are believed to be the ancestors of the Timorese. Hence they are not killed, but problem crocodiles will sometimes be removed and cared for where they can’t eat anyone.
We wound our way up the road out of Dili, and were soon looking over an azure ocean from a long, long way up, taking hairpin turns and brushing by trucks and buses with inches to spare on the extremely narrow road. Much of the land was passed through was heavily eroded, and livestock seemed to wander everywhere unrestricted.
That night we stayed at an eco lodge in Loi-huno near the south coast and shared a dinner at a communal table with a group of Australian nurses and midwives who were volunteering in Timor-Leste. They were surprised to hear we were just in the country to travel. “You don’t meet many tourists here”. The next morning we breakfasted on mild black Timorese coffee, fried breadfruit, omelette and pineapple. Afterwards, we did a hike up to some caves used by the Timorese resistance during the Indonesian occupation. On our way back down through the local village, we stopped to watch women preparing bat meat, which they caught by climbing up into the caves and swinging a (wooden) bat around.
Later, we stopped in at Zu’s old school. As we walked around the grounds, we came across a group of boys playing with a keyboard, and the next minute Anas was playing and singing, leading us all on a mini-sing-along that encompassed Bob Marley, a Maori love song and the Timorese national anthem. Afterwards, Zu told us how in 1999 he and 100 other students had continued their classes – band-practice, prayers and maths – as their country disintegrated into violence around them. Around the school were stationed ten freedom fighters, hiding, but prepared to protect the students if necessary.
That afternoon our four-wheel-drive started to seem very unhealthy, and rather than drive on, we went to Zu’s nearby home to wait for a replacement car. Here, his mother plied us with freshly made popcorn, sweet black coffee and fried breadfruit. Zu’s uncle joined us. He had been an army medic for the freedom fighters. “They treated us like animals. Like our lives were worth less than a dog’s”, he told us.
We drove on, stopping to visit a church where we played a strange ball game with the local kids, and the older kids practiced their English on us. When we finally made it to Com, a beachside town near the eastern tip of the island, it was late at night. Our guesthouse was basic, with a bucket shower and no wash-basin; the best option for brushing your teeth was simply spitting out into the garden bed. In the morning the sun blazed in through our glass-free window and I realised we were only metres from the water. Pigs were snuffling along the beach, no doubt ensuring that every last sea-turtle egg was consumed. Men were preparing small wooden fishing boats emblazoned with the Timor-Leste flag. We went for a walk through town and stood on the concrete pier watching colourful fish swim in the clear water.
Today we were headed to Jaco island, part of Nino Konis Santana Marine & Terrestrial National Park, which is the country’s first (and only) national park, established in 2007. It was blazingly hot as we drove on a dusty road through lantana scrub and masses of butterflies. We stopped to pick up a local guide – now we were four guides and two tourists! Our local guide was 74 and nimbly led us barefoot through the rainforest to a cave to show us some rock-art. He had lived through three different occupying forces – the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesians. He remembered the Portuguese forcing local people to build the roads under inhumane conditions. He told us he was disappointed by the youth of today because after all the hard work and sacrifices made by previous generations, they don’t want to work hard or study hard. Maybe he was right; a similar complaint would no doubt be made by older people all around the world.
The descent down to Jaco Island was horrendous. The 4WD lurched and shuddered and pivoted over boulders and into enormous ruts. Zu was in his element. By the time we got to the beach, I was very excited about snorkelling around the island, just a short trip away in a local fishing boat. But Kym, Zu and the local fishermen were huddled together talking in low tones. Something wasn’t right. Kym conveyed to us that two people had been taken by a crocodile here recently – one just last week. She didn’t think it was worth risking a snorkel. I didn’t take much convincing. We took the boat over to the island anyway, and walked along the beach admiring the postcard-blue water and white sand, and the impenetrable rainforest-cloaked mountains stretching along the coast. With the fisherman standing guard from his boat, Kym gave us the ok to have a short dip in the shallows if we felt comfortable. The water was so clear for tens of metres around us I figured we’d have a chance of seeing a crocodile coming. And plus I was insanely hot. YOLO.
On the drive back to our guesthouse in Com, Anas ramped up the music volume with a mobile phone speaker made out of an empty water bottle, singing along with his seriously impressive voice. Anas was raised and schooled by nuns and priests, after his father died when he was very young and his family couldn’t care for him. He sang and played piano every Sunday in church. After the music, we drove in silence for a while. Then Anas put a question to us. Would vegans be prioritised for entry to heaven above meat-eaters? The spark had been thrown, and tired as we were, the car erupted into vociferous debate!
Back at the guesthouse, we had a feast of stir-fried papaya leaves, whole-baked fish, tomato-fried tempeh and chilli-coated papaya and mango salad. As we ate, we watched lightening over the ocean, and the lights of fishing vessels bobbing up and down over the black sea. After dinner, the whole town was invited to our guesthouse for a screening of a Timorese film called ‘Beatrice’s War’. Somewhere around 100 people turned up, and we all crowded around an old cathode-ray TV on plastic chairs in the garden, with standing room only at the back. The film charted the Indonesian occupation through the eyes of one woman. Somewhat surreally, at all of the most intense, violent moments in the film – notably massacres – the audience collapsed into uproarious laughter, as I surreptitiously wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. Afterwards, Kym said it was the same all over Timor-Leste – a trauma response. People deal with the horrors they’ve experienced by laughing.
And so many people did experience horrors. Official estimates of the number of people violently killed under the Indonesian occupation vary, depending on the organisation and the method used. Some say 20,000. Some say 100,000. The UN Truth Commission found that 102,800 people died due to the conflict, including those who died from starvation, because the Indonesian forces wouldn’t let people tend their crops. In a population of less than a million people, this could be more than one in every ten people who died. If you think about it like that, it’s not surprising that everyone lost someone they loved.
In the district of Los Palos, where our guesthouse in Com was situated, the infamously sadistic TNI Battalion 745 had enacted a reign of terror throughout the occupation. They famously withdrew back across the border in a convoy in 1999, killing almost everyone with the misfortune to be in their way – at least 21 people, including a Dutch journalist. They were mostly East-Timorese soldiers under the command of Indonesian officers. How could the country deal with this? The violence perpetrated by their own? Zu and Anas were circumspect. In 1999, they said, many were forced to join the pro-Indonesian militias, or face their family members being killed. They were given drugs that turned them into crazed zombie killing machines. They were victims too, in a way. In cases like this, there is definitely a fine line between reconciliation, and impunity, but Kym said most people want to move forward and focus on the future. After all, even the freedom fighters committed violent acts against civilians. How could they hold every individual to account for their crimes? After war drags a whole population into its terrible depths, perhaps this approach – of letting the past be – is the only realistic path back to peace?
The traces of war were everywhere. On our way back to Dili we drove past a monument beside a river. We stopped, and Zu told us how in the aftermath of the 1999 violence he had driven past this very spot, to see a car lying overturned in the riverbed. That car had carried eight nuns and priests, all executed. According to local reports, their bodies lay in the river for a long time without being eaten by the crocodiles, because their souls were so pure. Zu told us that when he continued on to Dili, the streets were stained with blood and a terrible smell hung in the air.
Everywhere we went there was a story. The resistance had hidden here. The Indonesians burned this down. The massacre took place there. But Timor-Leste often has little to no information at important sites, and any plaques that do exist are usually not written in English. Having our guides with us brought history to life throughout the landscapes we travelled through. Without them, I realised we would have passed through in ignorance, without hearing any of these stories. But our guides were also more than windows into this country, I realised. Their stories, their own family histories which they so generously shared with us, their hopes for the future, their eloquent ideas about how their country could continue to grow and develop – our guides were this country.
On our last night in the country, we sipped lurid-coloured cocktails at a Thai-Lebanese restaurant on the beachfront. I reflected on how uncertain I had been about coming to Timor-Leste, and how greatly my expectations of our trip had been exceeded. In a country that has only so recently stepped out of the nightmare of war and suffered a number of armed political skirmishes since then, I was also surprised by how safe I had felt during our time there. Not once did I feel insecure as we wandered the scorching Dili streets getting completely lost (no thanks to our hand-copied version of an out-of-date map). Perhaps even more surprising, given Australia’s hand in the brutal invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste by Indonesia, not once did I feel a resentful gaze directed towards me. Not even at a time when protestors were marching on the Australian Embassy to demand a fair deal on the division of spoils from the Timor Gap oil fields. On the contrary, we were treated with kindness and understated hospitality by the Timorese people we met. Shy, excited gaggles of kids waved at us wherever we went, calling out ‘Malai! Malai!’ – foreigner! As painful as it was to admit it to my cynical self, the cliché actually seemed to be true here – ‘it’s the people’.
Travelling in Timor-Leste might not be for everyone, but it is seriously crazy that so few Australians tourists visit. The logistical challenges of travel here are real but for anyone with even a mild sense of adventure, they are worth overcoming. Not just because it’s a colourful country with delicious food, incredible beaches and extremely diverse sea-life, but because it’s the genuine article. A country that is truly beautiful on the inside as well as the outside.