My First Impressions Of Dili, East Timor
I spent four days travelling across West Timor to reach East Timor. The island has long been divided into two, a legacy of division that goes back to the early colonial days of the 16th Century and that produced a history that is still very much relevant today.
The Portuguese were the first to colonise the island after they began trading for valuable spices in the 16th Century. By the 18th Century, the Dutch were the dominant colonial power in the region, controlling much of what would become Indonesia. An 1859 treaty between the two European countries created what would ultimately be the borders that still divide the island, dividing Timor between East and West.
The Portuguese stayed until 1975, when East Timor declared independence. This new found freedom however, didn’t last long, as within days the Indonesian army invaded.What followed was a two decade long occupation, as Indonesia tried to turn East Timor into a province, ultimately failing when in 2002 the country again won its independence.
I travelled overland from Kupang, the largest city on the Indonesian side, taking local busses, Bemos, crossing the border on foot and then following the spectacular coastline along the only potholed and under maintained highway in East Timor to Dili, the capital.
When I saw the road sign announcing that this was Dili, I was slightly apprehensive, but excited. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was excited to see what I would find.
At first glance a description of East Timor’s capital city of Dili makes it sound flauntingly like a tropical getaway. Green, forested hills surround a city that backs onto clear, blue waters. White sand beaches fringe the city’s suburbs, and just off shore can be found some of the most pristine coral and diverse marine life in Asia.
Yet no one visits East Timor. I knew of no one who had travelled here before I visited. The country has the lowest tourism numbers in the region, numbering barely in the thousands each year. For a country blessed with all the natural necessities to be a prime tourism destination, its history, lack of infrastructure and only recent independence from Indonesia in 2002 all add up to create a destination that draws only the intrepid and adventurous, but rewards those who do visit with a fascinating insight into the workings of a country that is only just starting to find its place in the world.
I found a city that was as captivating and compelling a place to visit as it was confounding and confusing – like no where else I have visited in South East Asia, but at the same time undoubtedly familiar.
My First Impressions Of Dili
I was unsure what to expect of Dili as the car I’d taken a ride in from the border with Indonesia passed the ‘Dili’ road signs in the western suburbs of the city. The coastline had been spectacular, but the single lane road that was the main highway was badly potholed and in much of repair. The spectacular scenery would prove to be a standard feature of Dili, as would the lack of infrastructure.
I was greeted at the entrance to the city by the towering shape of a statue of Pope John Paul II. The late Pope visited the country in 1989, when they were still occupied by East Timor.
The Catholic Religion is probably the most distinct legacy of hundreds of years of Portuguese rule.
The church is everywhere, and it’s estimated that 98% of the population are Catholic, making East Timor essentially the most Catholic nation on the planet.
The city sprawls along the coast, and its suburbs stretch much further than I had imagined. The city expands along the coast, as on one side the high green mountains shelter and contain any expansion and on the other side is the blue, clear ocean.
The streets were busy with minibuses, motorbikes and the odd NGO labelled four by four, and while the main streets running parallel to the shore front are easy to follow, the maze of houses and buildings in between were easy to get lost in.
The buildings were run down in many cases, battered and then repaired over the years, but the streets were lively, with small businesses and restaurants, hawkers trying to get by and tradesmen working their stalls.
When the Indonesian army left, they destroyed much of the infrastructure, and years on from independence the country is still struggling to rebuild. The UN and many NGO’s continue to work on projects here, but the biggest thing I noticed in and around the city was the huge presence of Chinese construction firms, working on rebuilding the infrastructure over the next years. Considering how poor most people in East Timor are, I also noticed the comparatively higher prices for most things in the city compared to other South East Asian nations. This is in many ways because of the inflated economy brought about by the large wages of the expats who have worked here since the conflict ended. Because of the expensive hotels- and lack of value when it comes to hotels and accommodation- there is little to offer independent tourists looking to stay here, just one of the reasons that tourism has yet to flourish here.
In terms of natural beauty though, Dili has it all. The city is sprawling, chaotic and confusing, but leave the confines of the suburbs and the coastline just a few kilometres away from the harbour is green and stunning. The water is clear, blue and just a few hours away on the ferry is Atauro Island- visible from anywhere in Dili.
Atauro Island really is a tropical paradise, with some of the most pristine coral in Asia, and almost no tourists.
The real struggle, if East Timor embraces tourism and tourism embraces East Timor, will be finding a way to keep this natural beauty as it is.
Proudly standing over Dili on one of the most prominent peaks, which stretches into the ocean, is a statue of Jesus. This is Chirsto Rei, another prominent reminder of the country’s Catholicism but also, strangely, a gift from the Indonesians.
Built in 1996, during the final years of occupation, the statue was an attempt to dissuade the East Timorese from campaigning for independence. Why a statue would be the answer to the people of Timor’s problems, I do not understand. A bizarre attempt perhaps, and one that did not work. What is surprising though, is that when East Timor became independent the people of Dili did not tear down the statue as a symbol of oppression or occupation.
In fact the opposite happened. Being a symbol of the Catholic religion, the statue became a symbol of Indonesian failure and now it has become a symbol of the city, a symbol of an independent East Timor.
Just as the statue of Christo Rei – a statue built in and gifted by Indonesia – has become a symbol of their independence, I found many aspects of Dili’s culture to be similar.
Language, food and culture in Dili were a mixture of Portuguese, Indonesian and Timorese. The official languages are Portuguese and Tetum, and everyone seemed to speak Bahasa Indonesian. Rather than being leftover shackles of colonialism, Portuguese was adopted to create a distinct culture from Indonesia, while Indonesian is still spoken on a practical level. Arriving from Indonesia, many things may seem familiar to a traveller, but at the same very distinct and different. Things are slightly Portuguese, slightly Indonesian but most importantly, they are East Timorese.
East Timor and Dili especially seem to have embraced their diverse history, and the diverse influences that have held sway over their culture for centuries. But rather than tearing down that colonial past, they have embraced the best aspects of it and mixed it with their own unique culture to form a new distinct culture.
As any new nation must do to survive, East Timor is forging their own narrative in order to truly define themselves as an independent nation.
To see this happening in Dili, makes the city a truly special place to visit.
All Photos and Words by Richard Collett