Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Timor-Leste (i): Life in Dili


I flew out of Dulles on December 15th to head for Timor-Leste. The project I work with there needed some finance and management coverage due to a bunch of people going on leave at once, so off I went. Typically, the DC to Dili flight routes through Tokyo and then Singapore. There are only a handful of flights to Dili a week, so when my Tokyo-Singapore connection got canceled on that Monday evening, it meant I was hanging out around Narita for two more days. After a lot of hours spent at the United counter and a two hour roundtrip into the city for a bowl of ramen at the Shibuya Ichiran (totally worth the delay), I managed to get to Singapore and on to Dili. Nearly five days of total transit time.

When I did finally arrive in Dili on the 19th, I was informed that the Parliament had convened the previous day to announce three additional days of holidays for Christmas and New Years. What that meant was that in the following two weeks I only went to the office four times. I spent a lot of time wandering around the town, getting my dive certification (more on that in a subsequent post), and visiting nearby beaches and islands. Since my boss was going on leave for several weeks, she left me her tiny Mitsubishi Pajero Jr. It looks and drives like a toy, but it made getting around in the first few weeks much more convenient.

Being a Catholic country, Christmas in Dili is a big deal. The palacio de governo features a massive tree in its courtyard. The locals erect countless nativity scenes on roadsides ranging from traditional depictions of Joseph and Mary, Jesus, and the three Kings to really bizarre scenes including Santa Claus and random celebrities. Locals shops stock all kinds of generic Christmas paraphernalia. Being such a new and undeveloped country, I came across a lot of really strange and unexpected things, the coolest of which was a classic Shelby GT500 Mustang parked nonchalantly on a beach one evening.

One of the remnants of the Indonesian regime is a 27m high statue of Jesus Christ atop the hills enclosing the eastern end of the bay above Dili. Known as Cristo Rei, it's something of a pilgrimage site with the 12 stations of the cross punctuating a set of steps leading up the headland. From the top you're treated to a fantastic view of Dili and a great vantage point from which to view sunsets. Rainy season made for some fantastic sunsets.

There's also a path down to the backside of the hill to a fairly deserted beach. I'm told it was once little more than a worn dirt path through the trees, but that path is now being bulldozed to make way for resort development. I had a lot of conversations with people in Dili on the potential pitfalls of tourism development.

In writing this I'm realizing that it's really difficult to condense all of the observations I've had of Dili and Timor-Leste in these events. It's such a strange place for a lot of reasons that I find myself having to comment on basically everything. Strange because it's basically a nation starting from scratch. The Indonesians decimated the people, culture, and physical history of the place on their way out, so it's fascinating to see the logic or lack thereof behind the fledgling systems being put into place.

I've omitted so much of what I wrote down those first couple of weeks, but I'll do my best to articulate them in my later posts. Today is actually the first day I've been awake enough to sit down and go through my photos. I'm mostly back to normal, but this is the worst jet lag I've ever had. Stay tuned for more island adventures.