Inside Timor-Leste, the Century’s First New Nation

Blissfully tourist-free, East Timor boasts heady coffee, dugongs, and the world's most biodiverse waters.  
Timor-Leste
Cape Fatucama outside Dili offers the finest views of the sea. Perched on its peak is Cristo Rei, the statue of Jesus standing atop a globe. Photo by: David Kirkland/Getty Images

The near-empty flight from Bali to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste or East Timor, lasts barely two hours. The landing is wildly cinematic—the restful, royal blue waters lie a pole-vault away from the airstrip; pale brown hills and a sparsely inhabited hinterland fill out as the backdrop. Modest Dili airport resembles one in an Indian satellite town of the ’90s, with only half the latter’s crowd and chaos.

Past the unrelenting immigration personnel, I encounter three security staff keen on scouring, nay, ransacking, my suitcase. Watching them displace every item of clothing and electronics in a frenzy, the friend who has come to receive me chuckles. “It’s a new country, man. Don’t mind.”

So, here I am in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, a little-known, little island nation located northwest of Australia, at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. After enduring more than 400 years of occupation—the Portuguese ruled from the 17th century to 1975, and Indonesia from 1975 to 2002—Timor-Leste emerged as the first new nation of the 21st century. It has slowly entered the global consciousness as the place where Starbucks sources its organic Arabica from; and some of the richest coral reefs and the world’s most biodiverse waters are believed to be in Atauro Island, a 1.5-hour water taxi ride north of Dili.

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Atauro Island is a divers’ paradise and its waters are believed to have more species of reef fish than anywhere in the world. Photo by: David Kirkland/Getty Images

Conspicuously free of tourists, Timor-Leste is an under-marketed treasure island of natural wonders, which fully reveals itself only to those who desire off-the-beaten-track escapades. Think diving with dugongs in Atauro Island; hiking around the country’s tallest peak Mount Ramelau (9,796 feet) which lies a 4.5-hour drive south of Dili; or cycling through bone-dry, winding, and lung-punishing terrain—like the bunch of hardened Australian cyclists I encounter on Dili’s arterial Beach Road as I pedal to the country’s most famous structure.

Cristo Rei of Dili, an 89-foot-tall statue of Jesus atop a globe, stands on a hill and is heavily inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. That it was a gift from the brutal Indonesian regime to mark the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s “integration” into Indonesia, makes it an odd candidate as the city’s signature monument. Under the seething sun, I cycle my way back through the hills, the majesty of the pale turquoise and emerald waters only sweetened by the murmuring waves, and the wind. The sea is almost within touching distance all through Beach Road, separated from the street by a knee-high boundary wall, a narrow band of sidewalk, and jagged rocks that the ripples caress before surrendering to the sand. Of the many stops I make to chat with locals, or shoot photos and videos, the most memorable is the one I spend watching a gang of skinny-dipping kids raise a cheery ruckus while their families fix supper in shacks by the shore. The tangerine afterglow of the setting sun dances across the expanse of the sea. An abandoned wooden boat lies silent on one side, its commanding frame now reduced to a clothesline.

Beyond Dili, life is even slower. I hire a 4×4 with local guide Platao Lebre and head west to the district of Ermera, the heart of the country’s coffee-growing region. Weaving our way through forested hills and stray villages dotted with chapels, fields, and schools, we halt at a sprawling plantation that produces the lucrative, low-acidity, high-flavour beans.

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Bollywood is quite popular among the Timorese (top right) and Shah Rukh Khan is a crowd favourite; Tais cloth (bottom left) is the nation’s most well-known handicraft traditionally hand-woven by women; Gourmet coffee brands around the world are especially taking to Timor-Leste’s coffee beans and the industry is the cornerstone of the country’s economy (top left, bottom right). Photos by: Martin Wurt-Working Photos/Getty Images (weighing machine), Martin Wurt-Working Photos/Getty Images (van), Image Source/Getty Images (shawls), JEWEL SAMAD/Staff/Getty Images (girl)

We greet the coffee farmers toiling away under unusually tall coffee plants. “It’s all about delivering the finest quality beans,” Platao tells me, translating the farmers’ local tongue of Tetum. With 46 per cent of the Timorese dependent solely on coffee for their livelihoods, Asia’s youngest nation—also one of the poorest—clings as tightly to its coffee as it does to its tribal culture and Roman Catholic roots. “We Timorese are proud of all three,” Platao says.

Inside Timor Global, one of the region’s indigenous coffee-producing giants, its director Bobby Lay stands before an assortment of cane trays laden with coffee bean samples of varying hues of greenish brown, sourced mainly from Ermera and Maubisse, a hill town south of Dili. Fingering about seven samples of Arabica and Robusta, he says, “These are for the massy, supermarket supply chains.” Turning to the three trays on the far left, he allows himself a mild smile. “These are our high-grade Arabica beans, sold mostly to brands like Nescafé and to speciality roasters. Their flavour profile has hints of Virginia tobacco, with a lingering chocolatey, fruity taste.”

A piping sip or two of the coffee, freshly brewed in Lay’s personal coffee maker, swamps my senses with its heady body and persuasive aroma. “The way ahead for us is to produce more of such speciality coffee,” Lay continues, raising his cup, “Each area here in Timor has a unique microclimate. We are keen to take advantage of that and grow beans in micro-lots, so that we can sell them as origins from that specific region.” Coffee still accounts for about 90 per cent of Timor-Leste’s non-oil exports. “Given how many families it helps sustain, the coffee industry in Timor, besides being a commercial venture, is also a worthy cause if the farmers, too, can benefit,” feels Lay. Platao, seated near me, nods intently. A few more sips and we leave.

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Take a walk anywhere in and around Dili, and you meet kids playing football or swimming, often greeting travellers with a giggly “Hi, mister!” (top and bottom). Photos by: David Kirkland/Getty Images

Kicking up swirls of dust, our vehicle clambers up the mountains into fresher air. I put my head out as our car pierces the mist that hangs along the route, and feel an almost minty, explosive chill. It’s a reminder of Timor-Leste’s essence—gravelly coastlines and these maddening blasts of cold wind here in the mountains that at night would, to quote Bruce Chatwin, be “stripping men to the raw.”

Back in Dili, I drive past a string of modest homes shrouded in darkness as many streets are without light. It reminds me how painstakingly Timor-Leste is rebuilding itself, after the departing Indonesian forces set a good part of the country on fire, including the Palace of Ashes, the President’s office. Yet, if there’s one thing that’s quintessentially Timor-Leste, it’s the languid pace that affably binds all its peculiarities together, pace that might just recalibrate your perspective on modern life. In Dili, you’d be a shoo-in if it came to getting a table at any restaurant on the seafront, shopping for groceries is an uncomplicated chore untouched by the modern-day sine qua non of crowd-navigating and breathless haggling, and the vilest bout of traffic involves waiting at a red light for 120 seconds.

The National Laidback Index, if there ever were such a thing, is best illustrated by the Timorese’s habit of driving at a slow-to-medium speed across the country. It is vexing to the Mumbaikar
in me. “Why do you drive so slow, man?” I finally ask my cab driver, who is kicking back to Bob Marley, visibly sated by his steady 35 kmph while dropping me back to the airport.

“Where’s the point in hurrying?” he replies, with a gentle smile. My airline might not agree, but after spending five days in Timor-Leste, I reluctantly do.

Essentials

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In addition to pristine white sand shores, the best thing about Timor-Leste’s beaches is their incredible seclusion. Photo by: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Getting There & Around The best way for Indians to reach Timor-Leste is to fly to Bali, which is connected to Dili by regular, daily flights. Dili is also connected by flights from Singapore and Darwin in Australia. Timor-Leste offers a single-entry visa on arrival valid for 30 days, which costs $30 Rs1,950. Timor-Leste’s currency is the U.S. dollar, though you might get small change in centavos (www.timorleste.tl). The city is a 10-min ride away by taxi ($10/Rs650). The best way to travel around Dili is to hire a vehicle and a local driver as most residents speak only the local language, Tetum. A 4×4 costs around $85-120/Rs5,540-7,800 per day and a motorcycle about $30/Rs1,950.

Stay On Dili’s Beach Road, Hotel Esplanada offers panoramic views of the bay area (www.timorleste.tl; doubles $100/Rs6,500). Balibo Fort hotel isn’t centrally located but lies in the 300-year-old Balibo Fort (baliboforthotel.com; doubles $95/Rs6,200).

Eat Most restaurants on Beach Road offer traditional Timorese dishes: tukkir, a slow-cooked goat/buffalo meat dish stuffed in bamboo; kattupa (rice stuffed in coconut leaves and cooked with coconut milk and turmeric extracts); arus fugadu (rice cooked with meat and vegetables); beefi (beef dish with tomato gravy and served with fried potato); and ikan (fish) cooked in a variety of ways.

  • Anand Holla is a writer, journalist, vegan, traveller, filmmaker, photographer, musician, take-it-easy-er. He loves travelling to faraway lands in search of nature’s neglected wonders, shake hands with or bite into new cultures, and experience lucid moments of serenity that only an unfamiliar patch of earth, water, or sky, can summon.

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