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Article: Discovering Timor-Leste

Discovering Timor-Leste

Discovering Timor-Leste

In the World Tourism Organization’s 2014 survey Timor-Leste was listed as the 8th least-visited country in 2013. It’s not difficult to understand why. Whenever I tell someone where I’m going, the first response is usually, “Where’s East Timor?”(ed. Specifically, it's right here.)

There aren’t daily flights to Dili (the capital) and each trip I’ve taken there from Washington, DC has involved a minimum of three planes and upwards of four days. It’s also one of the youngest countries in the world, having achieved independence from neighboring Indonesia in 2002.

Timor-Leste is the kind of place that isn’t necessarily untouched, but is so sparsely populated and seldom traveled that it often feels that way. Outside the capital, coming across structures evokes feelings of discovery as if one were uncovering relics rather than evidence of a contemporary society. Timor-Leste’s dominant Catholicism is a legacy of its years as a Portuguese colony and the source of many of the country’s most elaborate adornments. From the massive, Rio-inspired statue of Jesus atop the headlands to the alabaster white Virgin Mary at the summit of Mount Ramelau, there exists an almost mystical symmetry to making the trip inland to Timor-Leste’s highest point.

From the beaches of Dili, peppered with fish vendors and children playing football, the road to Ramelau sees a gradual decline in population density and infrastructure. From Dili to Aileu, the first town along the road inland, there is a reasonable amount of pavement, but once through the small clustering of concrete foundations, rusted tin roofs, and vegetable markets of the town, the road becomes a packed concoction of rocks and mud. It’s the kind of drive that takes you through lush jungles and mountains begging to be admired, but the sheer frequency of road hazards necessitates that 100% of your attention be devoted to not driving off a cliff. 

Both Aileu and Maubisse, the second town before Ramelau, are places that would be familiar to anyone that’s visited a developing nation. Vegetables laid out on tarps on the ground, countless kiosks all displaying identical sets of groceries and household goods that have been unsold for who knows how long, makeshift grills with unnamed parts of chicken on 25 cent skewers smoking in a sweet, chili sauce. Roosters, goats, and children race along narrow gravelly corridors. Colorful woven textiles for sale displayed in vibrant displays.

By the time I reach the town under Ramelau, it had taken me five hours to drive only 100km. The trail is not marked, so some guesswork needs to be done at forks in the path if you’re not familiar with the way. I arrived at the summit in the late afternoon after a few hours of hiking without passing a single other person and found myself greeted by the placid gaze of the Virgin Mary presiding over Timor from the highest point on the island. Carried up the mountain in 1997 during Indonesian occupation, the incongruity of the monument in a nation with such a lack of infrastructure is at once confounding and awe inspiring. As the surrounding mountains rolled out below me, a carpet of swift moving clouds obscured their peaks intermittently creating a sort of whack-a-mole display. A strong wind whistled through the air and instilled a chill that was the reason that I had packed an entire change of clothes. Gone was the oppressive tropical heat from sea level only to be replaced by a biting cold.

As I admired the sunset from the summit, it began to occur to me that I was not prepared to weather the cold overnight. Without a tent or thermal gear (virtually nonexistent in Timor-Leste) I decided to descend to a less harsh elevation to find shelter and build a fire. Not five minutes after hiking down, a man and his small dog appeared on the road in front of me. He didn’t speak English but understood enough to know that I was cold and invited me to join him in his tiny shack at the base of a nearby radio tower. I was able to glean that his job was to guard the tower overnight. He built a small fire and we sat by its warmth for the next several hours. I shared what food I had brought with me. He looked over at me periodically, smile, take a puff from his cigarette, and say “America!”

At about 4am, I thanked my host vigorously and ventured back into the cold to take the photograph I had envisioned ever since reading about Ramelau: the Virgin Mary backdropped by a sky full of stars. So removed from any light pollution and with a new moon that night, the sky was a spectacular lightshow. The Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud was clearly visible and more than a handful of meteors streaked across the sky.

Brian Oh is a freelance food writer and photographer, and works for a government contractor in international development. This concoction of talents lends him to a life of travel, exploring less than mainstream locales.