Before I delve further into our Timor times, there are a few things about Timor-Leste that (I think) are very important to know.
1. It’s not in Africa.
A lot of people whom I told about my trip thought I was going to Africa. Nope. Timor-Leste occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor in the very southeast corner of the Malay Archipelago. It is just above Darwin, Australia and nowhere near any part of Africa.
2. It’s history has been brutal.
Timor-Leste gained sovereignty from Indonesia in 2002. It’s been occupied basically since the 17th century and that occupation has been incredibly brutal at times. While its more recent history has also been tumultuous, Timor-Leste is officially a sovereign state, a fact that its hardened, yet incredibly friendly people are staunchly proud of.
3. It’s expensive.
Despite being one of the poorest nations in the Eastern Hemisphere, Timor-Leste is one of the most expensive places to visit in Southeast Asia. These high prices are bolstered by the government’s use of the U.S. dollar as currency, a relatively recent influx of oil money, and the steady rotation of well-paid foreign “volunteers,” government personnel, and NGO do-gooders.
4. It feels a lot like Latin America.
You can definitely feel the Portuguese influence in Timor. All the cars are bumping reggaeton and kuduro, everyone is wearing a soccer jersey, and the Portuguese flag is on everything. It feels like I’m back in Brazil and not actually in a former part of Indonesia.
5. People love foreigners
If you are visibly not Timorese, your travels will be filled with shouts of “Malai,” the Timorese word for forienger. It derives from the fact that the original foreigners here were Malay sailors, hence the similarity of the words. But almost everyone will be excited to see you, for better and for worse, especially the abundance of super cute children.
6. You should drink the coffee
Timorese coffee is considered some of the best in the world. It is almost 100% organically grown, mainly because most growers cannot afford pesticides. It is steeped here like tea, with coffee grounds being covered in hot water to make a pot, so cups often come with teeth filled with (delicious) coffee particles.
7. Oil is the name of the game.
Despite its push towards eco-tourism and sustainable development, the majority of Timor’s money comes from rich oil and gas reserves off of its southern coast. The government collects no taxes, but owns nearly all of this fuel, which it trades to foreign entities.